The horse meat quandary

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?

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15 Comments on “The horse meat quandary”

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  1. dave says:

    “They shop with limited budgets”

    I’ve found that this is more a matter of priorities than it is truly a matter of budgets. Most people who tell me it is too expensive to eat healthy/local food sure do enjoy their 380 channels of premium TV, or their new 4×4 truck, or… you get the point.

    I have to imagine the % of people who are really so destitute that they can only afford subsidized processed crap food is pretty small.

    It is also probably a matter of convenience. I have yet to visit an area where I was unable to locate or source healthy local food. But in some places it does take some (initial) effort… people seem unwilling to do that.

  2. n says:

    Horse meat is good.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    In an of itself, there is nothing wrong with horse meat.
    Never had it but my mother had an uncle who ate horse meat while in Europe for WW I.
    My wife had an aunt living in England who bought it because it looked so pretty and very red.
    She realized something was off when she boiled it and it foamed up.
    Dogs don’t have a problem with it.
    I guess if you were a horse, being eaten is better than being turned into glue.
    If I were forced to choose between horse meat and shark fins, I’d pick the horse.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Let’s not forget the role of our former North Country Representative John Sweeney who wrote the bill to eliminate the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    This is part of the larger issue about food and our ability to choose what and how we eat it, an issue that is often misrepresented in the media. People want to information about the food they eat so they can make informed decisions. They want to know if their food is GMO, where it is grown, whether pesticides or anti-biotics or hormones were used in its production, etc.

    So far in the US corporations have had too much power over the system. They argue that if food is deemed safe there is no reason consumers should need to know where or how their food is produced. They have managed to rig the system so that small farmers who have been growing food organically for decades can’t say their food is organic. Oprah was sued for saying “I’ll never eat a burger again.”

    It isn’t just about horse meat. It is about the whole food supply industrial complex.

  6. mervel says:

    I would have to veer toward Knuckles’ case on this one. The food chain is producing “meat” that we can’t tell from tasting what it is. When you eat a hamburger that is made from literally hundreds of cows and their parts and mixed together and then re-injected with flavoring that makes it taste like “meat” who could possibly know or care if part of the meat is horse, rabbit or cow. It is no longer meat but a “product”.

    I think cost is part of it; people will try to save on food and if it tastes basically good and the cost is less they are fine with it. The issue is that most people don’t know or have access to true choice because as Knuckle points out the industry is monopolizing and controlling the choices. They have not only rigged the system against small farmers but really all ranchers and farmers who are not involved in meat processing or large feed lots.

    I would suggest everyone try locally grass fed, beef, sheep and pork. You CAN taste a difference it is good, healthier and it is not that much more expensive than going to Price Chopper and we have several excellent local producers.

  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    As with the consumption of any meat, my concern is the proper handling and care given the animal during its life and at the end of its life. Unfortunately, even the most carefully raised animals–whether cows, sheep, goats, poultry or horses, for that matter–are usually subjected to pretty miserable end-of-life circumstances, including miles in trucks to unfamiliar slaughter facilities.

    As a species, we humans tend to be fairly cavalier about what we subject other species to–whether in the name of feeding ourselves and our pets or providing land/habitat for people.

    Okay, I’m a vegetarian who actually raises meat for consumption. I am also someone who raised horses for many years. Objectively, there is no difference between eating ground horse meat or ground cow. It’s a cultural and emotional divide rather than a health or safety divide.

    As was mentioned, drugs are a real issue when dealing with livestock NOT raised specifically for consumption. At a minimum, an animal treated with antibiotics is not supposed to be slaughtered for food until at least several months after the drugs are administered. Some people believe they should never be eaten because of residuals.

    There are a lot of arguments pro and con regarding local food. When it comes to meat, there’s a better chance the animal will have been treated well if it comes from a small, local producer. There are no mega-feedlots in the region, but there are also no guarantees about animal treatment unless you know the source.

    It’s hard to lay down strict “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” when it comes to food. Probably the best approach is to pay attention to what you eat–not just because of your health and well-being but because of the health and well-being of other species and our shared habitat: planet earth.

    (Wow. Didn’t mean to sound so preachy. I’m always pleased when people talk and think about where our food comes from.)

  8. mervel says:

    Growing up we were always taught a horse was smarter than a cow or a pig and could form a bond with a human that those animals could not, that is why we can never eat a horse. This was from my dad who used horses on our ranch. I think this was cultural deal but I always believed it.

  9. Walker says:

    I’d like to meet the horse that was as smart as a pig!

  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Dave, I do know what you mean about people who should be spending their money on basic needs – yet somehow they have the premium cable package!

    But setting questionable priorities aside, poverty happens, unemployment knocks you down or illness can hit. Those are not fun places to be.

    Right now I am lucky enough to buy pretty much what I want at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Or grow it on my own half-acre. But even from this secure position I am shocked, truly shocked, at how fast the price of food seems to be climbing.

    Non-shoppers may not very be aware of this. And the stores are trying to obscure the issue by shrinking the jar size on that peanut butter or pasta sauce so customers pay the same price – for 1/4th less.

    I guess I’m just saying there are plenty of people – way too many people – who can’t afford to be real picky about their food purchases. I’ve heard that the gap described this way: the well-off ask “What shall we eat for dinner tonight?” while the impoverished ask “_Will_ we eat tonight?”

    It would help if more of us re-learned basic home-cooking. There are many economical and delicious meals to be had from staples like beans and rice.

    It’s a fact though, that even beans, corn, wheat and rice are getting more and more expensive. Food security and food scarcity are real problems that seem to be getting worse.

    I agree with Ellen that what we owe animals is “proper handling and care given the animal during its life and at the end of its life”.

    When I was a girl I was so horse-mad that I used to want to be a horse. Horses, like dogs, are animals we can feel terribly close to. And yet they say pigs are as smart as animals come. They just don’t win as many cute & lovable points. Go figure.

  11. mervel says:

    Walker oh sure you can try your fake measuring stuff; but does a pig look at you in the eyes? Does a horse if it got loose run around the countryside digging up everything and being mean? No the horse is uniquely affiliated with human beings as a companion and partner in our lives. The pig’s only partnership with humans is as bacon.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I recently went to the store and found they had switched all the 5lb bags of sugar for 4lb bags. Neat trick!

    Would a horse or pig figure it out? For that matter, are the people who decide which animal is smarter than another smart enough to rank them accurately? I remember hearing the old story about the pig, the horse and the electric fence. The pig was supposed to be smarter because it would touch the fence once, get a shock and never do it again while the horse touched the fence repeatedly. Seems like strong evidence the pig had no imagination. We had a horse that would put a nose hair against the electric fence to test if it was on. If he got a shock he would rear backward and go find something else to do. But every once in a while the fence wasn’t on and he would proceed to walk through it and wander onto the front lawn to graze. The grass closest to the road is the sweetest, after all. So that horse knew there was a reward if he could penetrate the trick of the fence. He developed a theory and a protocol for testing his theory. The protocol risked a certain amount of pain but he was willing to accept the pain for an occasional chance at reward.

    He could operate the thumb latch to his stall too. And if you rode him and weren’t paying close attention he would scrape you off on a tree. He also had a neat trick of standing on your foot and then looking at you like he didn’t understand why you were excited. I’m certain he had a sense of humor – a mean sense of humor, but humor never-the-less. Show me a pig that smart.

  13. tootightmike says:

    We stopped buying commercial meats after one of those massive recalls several years ago. Between the cruelty issues, the purity issues, and the just plain revulsion of grinding hundreds of cows into mountains of hamburger, we went cold turkey; no more commercial meat from places unknown.
    In a place like the North Country, it only takes a little effort to find someone raising critters for sale. these animals, raised on a human scale, spend their lives with someone looking over them. attending to their needs on pretty much an individual basis. In addition, if there was a problem with the end product, the grower wouldn’t sell it to me.
    We buy beef, pork, lamb, chickens, turkeys, and occasionally a goose, all from people we know. The only thing I miss is fish, and we’re looking for that guy.

  14. Rancid Crabtree says:

    This hits so close to home on multiple levels. I’m a farmer these days. We use draft horses, have riding horses, cows, sheep, etc and one beloved sow. I have a Jersey cow that is a faithful and pleasant as any dog and a paint mare that is her twin in that respect. Anyone spending even a few days with the sow, the cow or the mare would be hard pressed not to ind themselves bonding to a degree with any of them. And yes, Mervel, that sow will look you in the eye and smile at you. Our neighbor has a young sow they’ve trained to walk on a leash and the neighborhood “boar man” has at least one boar that knows his name very well and will jump into the trailer on command for his trip to his next “date”. (Slap a polyester disco suit on him, some gold chains and aftershave and it would be hard to tell him from the “lounge lizards” of the early 80’s! I can hear the Barry White in the background….) Anyway, all animals have a personality and deserve humane treatment. That I think is pretty well accepted. The definition of “humane” is where we get in trouble. There are people who object to industrial agriculture, I’m more or less in that group. But there are also people that say I’m abusing my horses when we spread manure or milk a cow or shear a sheep. They say it’s horrible that we eat meat as they judge us from the comfort of their leather seats in their Beemer. The hypocrisy seems lost on them.

    As to horses specifically, we NEED to bring back horse slaughter facilities. It’s not a pleasant thought, but believe me, we have the same “foal mills” as we do “puppy mills”. You can’t drop an unwanted horse off to the SPCA or let it loose on some back road as easily as you can a dog or cat. And you can’t toss the carcass in a bag and put it out with the trash if it dies either. Scrub horses are of little value. You can go on Craigslist any day of the week and find hundreds of untrained, ill or ancient horses for free. Accidental breedings happen and getting rid of an untrained, poorly built horse with multiple other issues is about as easy as getting rid of the Pit cross that can’t be around kids, cats, other dogs, has a barking issue and eczema. One person in 500 can do something with that dog or horse- maybe. So what do you do with them? Horses are very expensive to feed if you don’t have a lot of good, fenced pasture. If you think a deer does a lot damage when you hit one, try a horse that weighs 10X as much that broke through that rusty, single strand electric fence that got zapped by lightening 2 weeks back. What do you do? We can’t afford to feed our human population much less our stray animal population. Slaughter is the best answer I’ve come up with.

    As for the meat, by all means make use of it. Horse tastes like good beef generally. As one who has made sausage, I don’t have a problem eating all the pieces/parts. I’d much rather eat good met locally raised and processed than chemical laden trash from some overseas source. How we get people to start appreciating what real meat is supposed to taste like or to accept that apples bought in May aren’t even close to what you get locally in September…that’s not so easy. Chances are the way they’ll eventually learn this is when prices get so high they have to start eating locally grown stuff.

  15. andrea bellinger says:

    Interesting discussion – one other and small thing. Some lambs are raised for slaughter; you can meet “Ham” and “Burger” in any 4-h competition. One of the things we lost in mega agriculture is trained butchers and trained buyers. If you eat meat, then yes raise it humanely, slaughter it correctly and sell it correctly. I’m listening to NPR discuss horsemeat in the “Stans” where it is just part of the culture (a horse culture) where they also sell mare’s milk – not part of our culture. The buyers would also recognize a sick animal or an OLD animal (how many young horses are slaughtered in our culture) and so would the buyers. Know who you buy from is the first rule. Anyway I couldn’t eat horses (have known a couple, or goats for the same reason. Can’t accept dogmeat. But I do accept others can.

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