As you’ve probably heard, there’s a huge horse meat scandal happening in Europe.
On one level, it’s about feeling queasy to discover the “wrong” animal on your plate. On another level, it’s an astonishing indictment of a system where food processing and accountability seem to be out of control.
Horses have been eaten in many places for a very long time. Indeed, all the media attention has reportedly increased business at restaurants that explicitly serve horse entres. Mark Schatzker wrote Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef. His lengthy defense of horse as good eating appeared in the Globe and Mail back in 2011.
Beyond comfort zones and proper labeling of ingredients, is there a problem with eating horse? The answer seems to be no and yes.
In the “no problem” column – see all those countries (and recipes) in which horse is eaten with gusto. In the “could be dangerous” column, a problem arises when eating animals not raised for human consumption. Horses in particular are often treated with drugs people should avoid eating. Most infamously this involves Phenylbutazone or “bute” – a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory commonly used to treat lameness in horses.
Here’s a Q&A from the New York Times about U.S. exposure to horse meat and any concerns that may raise.
Even where cultural set-points frown on eating horse, problems with keeping and disposing of large animals do crop up. In recent years there’s been an explosion of horse abandonment: beset by the recession, unemployment and spiraling hay prices, some owners just give up. Many unwanted horses get trucked to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. Here’s a site opposed to that practice for safety and ethical reasons.
Why must horses be trucked so far? Because the U.S. stopped inspecting horse meat in 2006 or 2007 (accounts on that year vary) which had the effect of shutting down slaughtering horses in the U.S.
Of course, dead is dead – where ever the slaughter takes place. But horse lovers have been quite unhappy about the added suffering the long treks inflict. Here’s more on what that business is like from the Toronto Star: “Dirty little secret: Canada’s slaughter industry under fire“.
Horses here generally sold for less than $200. Some went for as little as $30.
The economics are compelling.
While those in the industry declined to reveal the profit margins on “kill horses” sold for slaughter, sources interviewed by the Star and receipts from previous sales show payouts of between 40 and 95 cents per pound.
Typically, that means “kill buyers” earn between $450 and $600 per horse depending on an animal’s weight and market price fluctuations.
Canada is a big link in this supply chain. By some estimates Canada is the world’s third-largest exporter of horse meat, processing over 80,000 animals last year alone. (Some say it’s more like 100,000.)
Horse meat in Canada is subject to testing for substances like “bute”, as detailed by this “Horse Meat – Fact Sheet” from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But the Star article suggests significant gaps in regards to safety and testing.
OK, so now it’s a European and a Canadian story. Well, not so fast. The New York Times has just reported:
The United States Department of Agriculture is likely to approve a horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico in the next two months, which would allow equine meat suitable for human consumption to be produced in the United States for the first time since 2007.
On the micro level this is about what we eat and where/how it is slaughtered. Or about animal rights, if you lean that way.
Thinking bigger, though, we hit the broader topic of labeling, accountability and fraud. Thankfully, eating horse meat won’t kill. But it’s no great leap to assume something similar could happen involving BSE (“mad cow”) or other actual health threat, if there’s money to be made co-mingling a suspect ingredient with regular products.
Another NYT article about how this is playing in Europe contained an analogy worth thinking about.
…former editor Andreas Whittam Smith wrote in The Independent, “The more closely the horse meat scandal is examined, the more it brings to mind the origins of the banking crisis” — for horse meat sold as beef, read subprime mortgages sold as safe investments.
Smith’s original “How to sell horsemeat and sub-prime loans” is good reading too.
So, here’s a closing question about so-called factory food. If you buy minimally processed/local food that should improve the chances of knowing what’s on your plate. But hundreds of millions can’t. They shop with limited budgets, or live urban lives and rely on food that comes out of conventional supply chains.
Are some supply chains broken? Or does this just reflect a need for more regulation and tighter inspection?