One can’t help but notice over the past few weeks the fascination the urban media has with horsemeat. It’s particularly curious for the North American media to be so obsessed, considering the consumption of horsemeat is virtually nil on this continent. Yet a day doesn’t go by without some news report that the scandal has spread even further to another part of Europe. The implication seems to be that horsemeat is somehow bad, though some reports add that the product is not a health hazard. What is clear is that if the meat of concern was pork it would not be newsworthy.
The issue started when horsemeat DNA was found mixed in with beef in products like hamburger and sausage. It’s never stated how much horsemeat is in the guilty meat product — it could be a millionth of a part. But whatever the quantity, it is curious as consumers expect hamburger to be made from beef. That’s not quite always the case as the word “hamburger” only assumes it is beef contrary to its pork-like name.
For it to be beef only, it should be labelled “beefburger.” Even that can be misleading being many burgers contain flavouring additives, even cheese and fillers like bread crumbs. It would seem that reading the label is rather important when buying hamburger — it could contain some surprises. Perhaps having horsemeat mixed in with beef may be the least of a consumer’s concern — at least it’s natural meat and not a cereal filler product. Rumours still abound that some store-bought hamburger patties actually contain sawdust as a filler — but that may just relate to how they taste.
Finding horsemeat DNA mixed in with other meats comes as no surprise to those of us who have toured European slaughter plants. I have witnessed seeing sheep and cattle being slaughtered and processed at the same time and on the same floor in fairly large facilities in Ireland and Switzerland. Such a practice does not occur in this country in medium to large plants — multispecies slaughtering in Canada tends to be restricted to smaller speciality plants and local abattoirs. There is certainly meat crossover potential in further processing facilities where companies will use both pork and beef to make a variety of manufactured meat products. That may be accidental, but it certainly is not dangerous — neither is the inclusion of other meats like horsemeat. So what’s the big deal with this case — well, because it’s horsemeat.
North Americans and many Europeans tend to have a romantic connection to the horse as a noble and majestic animal. Besides being handsome animals, they have been stalwart companions to humans in work, war, and recreation, that puts them in an empathetic category for people and that does not include eating them for food. Although I suspect horses don’t worry about what happens to them after they expire. However humans somewhere in the past discovered that eating their noble friend is really no different from eating less noble species like hogs, cattle and sheep. I can personally attest to that having happily consumed quantities of a Dutch delicacy called “rookvlees.” In its correct form, that delicacy is made from smoked horsemeat. Curiously, I have yet to find this delicious product in Calgary and have to import it from Vancouver.
Another curious aspect to the discovery of horsemeat in some European meat products is how this is possible, considering that horsemeat is not exactly a cheap meat product. One could understand the use of cereals, pork, mutton and, heck, even sawdust in hamburger as low cost fillers to extend the use of more expensive beef. But horsemeat is not deemed to be a low-cost choice, unless some processor has found a cheap source. Since some dubious eastern European suppliers have been implicated, perhaps this involves roadkill or rustling — just a guess, of course.
Interestingly, all of this horsemeat publicity has seen a new taste interest develop in European consumers. Specialty meat market outlets in France report an increase in horsemeat sales since all the media fuss began. That’s good news for a particular processing sector right here in Alberta. North America’s largest processors and marketers of horsemeat operate a horse feedlot and slaughter plant in Fort MacLeod. Most of their meat production is exported to Japan and Europe.
More demand for the meat should see higher prices for cull horses at sales across western Canada. It would seem that the urban media’s obsession with the so-called horsemeat scandal has had a positive marketing outcome — but probably not in a way they had anticipated.
Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.
— AHEAD OF THE HEARD