Note to my readers: As you may have already noticed, I’ve put my regular blog format aside today to bring you a feature piece about the Canadian horsemeat business. The impetus to write this article arose after I posted about the culinary aspects of horsemeat last month. I received many comments and questions that left me with no ready response; it became obvious that I needed to learn more about this topic. The result is about 3,000 words of interviews, stats and opinions. I know you might not have time to read all of this piece when you click through today, but I hope you’ll bookmark this post and come back to it when you have more time.
Behind the Barn Door: The Hidden Facts about Canada’s Horsemeat Industry
By Dana McCauley
[Toronto, August 17, 2009] Early last autumn, on a breezy, bright Sunday afternoon, more than four dozen of Toronto’s top chefs set up tables under a high-roofed barn near the Don River. They were volunteering their day off to participate in the second annual Picnic at Brickworks, a fundraising event hosted by the Evergreen Foundation and Slow Food Toronto. Acclaimed chef and co-owner of Pangaea Restaurant, Martin Kouprie was among the volunteers and knew he was being provocative when he decided to serve glistening spoonfuls of horsemeat tartar, cradled on leaves of tender Cookstown Greens kale. While a handful of guests acquiesced and moved on to the next chef’s table after they heard what Kouprie was serving, most people were inquisitive and tried the horsemeat; and, according to Kouprie, almost everyone who sampled the tartar proclaimed it delicious.
“During my apprenticeship as a cook at Café Henry Burger in Hull, Quebec, I learned how to prepare horsemeat many ways. Its lean, close, compact texture and underlying sweet flavour are very satisfying and make a terrific tartar,” notes Kouprie. “Unfortunately, what I didn’t know when I put horsemeat on the menu at Pangaea and then served it at the Brickworks Picnic is that most of the product now for sale in Canada isn’t raised as food. That means that the quality varies widely and there’s no assurance that the meat being served was raised naturally. I’m very cautious about the meat I purchase and 12-year-old ex racehorses just don’t match my quality criteria.”
Kouprie’s suppliers, whether intentionally or not, had led him to believe that the horsemeat they offer is produced like the pork, duck and venison they also sell: raised with care and respect for eventual culinary use. “I was shocked when I learned that pedigree information on horsemeat is not readily available,” confesses Kouprie.
Canada is the only Western country still producing horsemeat. Although we supply a domestic market in Quebec, most Canadian horsemeat is exported to Japan, Mexico, and European Union (EU) countries such as France, Italy and Switzerland. Although not verified by personal research, one European consumer informed me that Canadian horsemeat is at least occasionally sold in their markets as a grass fed, free-range product. Whether this misinformation is the fault of Canadian suppliers or a liberty taken by over zealous European retailers is unknown. Regardless, spreading such untruths serves only to make people everywhere more wary about the industry. Unlike pork, beef and chicken, a marketing board that can educate retailers, consumers and foodservice professionals about this commodity doesn’t represent horsemeat producers. Instead, this $60 million a year business is characterized by mystery that does more to provoke suspicion than it does to develop an industry where Canadians can show international leadership. In this way, the horsemeat industry does itself an immense disservice and perpetuates many of its own troubles.
Consider the comments made on my blog several weeks ago when I wrote about the culinary aspects of horsemeat and encouraged my readers to choose it as an alternative to game meats such as venison or duck. To be honest, I wrote that piece while under the same assumptions as Kouprie (who is, for those who don’t know, my spouse). Readers, many of whom got to that post from links posted on horse advocacy forums, raised numerous alarming concerns about horsemeat. From charges of animal abuse to worries about the health of the animals entering our food chain, the comments were passionate and disturbing and inspired me to learn more. Finding a vacuum where I expected to find facts about the Canadian horsemeat business, I began scheduling interviews to discover the truth about how horses are channeled through the system.
One of the first things I discovered is that chefs and food writers aren’t the only ones craving more info about this meat choice. One of my first calls was placed to Tim Chapcuk who has spent his entire career in the meat supply business. Currently he’s a meat and seafood specialist at MacGregor’s Meats and Seafoods in Toronto where his team participates in the Ocean Wise program that traces fish and seafood back to its origins to ensure it’s harvested from sources employing sustainable methods. He and his colleagues scrutinize the pedigree of all the other foods they sell, too. Due to lack of reliable information, his company doesn’t stock horsemeat although Chapchuk often gets requests for it from chefs – especially those with European training.
“It’s not that I don’t like it. I’ve had horsemeat dried like prosciutto, cured in a salami, in sausage form and even in pasta. Every time I’ve had horsemeat the experience has been a positive one. But, I shy away from selling horsemeat since there isn’t enough information about the supply chain for me to carry it,” divulges Chapchuk.
Claude Boissoneau, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) National Specialist on Red Meat Non-Ruminant Species, walked me through the government’s role in the horsemeat business in a telephone interview. According to Boissoneau, 90% of all horsemeat is slaughtered at one of the six federally-inspected horse-slaughtering facilities in Canada. At these facilities, the same regulations are followed that apply to other federally-inspected meats. Likewise, the holding pens and equipment used at these facilities is designed specifically for horses to ensure that the end of each animal’s life is handled as humanely and safely as possible. In fact, independent consultant and internationally recognized animal welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin has audited these facilities and their practices.
As horses enter the system, the packer screens the animals for health. If there is any suspicion about the animal’s well being or if there is physical evidence that the animal has been given veterinary drugs recently, the horse is put into a special group to be blood tested. Each facility also has a CFIA-employed inspector on staff who also evaluates each beast. Animals with dubious health can be detained and tested, condemned as non-food appropriate or identified as requiring more detailed inspection after slaughter. Likewise, the CFIA inspector inspects every carcass before it’s stamped with an inspection mark and deemed suitable for human consumption by Canadians and for export to other countries. In 2008, inspectors condemned 1.6% of the total number of horses sent for slaughter for reasons such as melanoma, pneumonia and septicemia. While these inspections and procedures answer concerns about whether the meat is safe to eat according to current regulations, they don’t assure home cooks and chefs that the horsemeat sold in Canada is good tasting or of a particular quality or grade. Boissoneau concedes that one can “assume that a high percentage of the horses eaten had a working life before becoming a meat source.”
While this fact discourages people like chefs who want gourmet eating experiences, it doesn’t upset industry insiders like Bill deBarres, chairman of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada. He points out that without Canada’s horse slaughtering industry, there would be nowhere for working and recreational horses to go once they reached the end of their useful lives. Instead, he predicts that there would be thousands of neglected and abandoned horses suffering until they died of natural causes. To put the scale of the potential problem into perspective, USDA statistics indicate that in 2008 the US exported 77,073 horses to Canada for slaughter.
As Boissoneau points out, it’s a business decision for meat packers to decide whether to raise horses specifically for culinary sale or use what is already available to them from US and Canadian farms that have aging or injured horses. While the CFIA diligently screens animals according to current regulations, it’s also true that many of the horses making it into the food stream were treated in their lifetimes with veterinary medicines such as phenylbutazone (Bute), dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and worming drugs that are labeled to be harmful to human beings. The good news for all horsemeat consumers is that thanks to the EU, there will be more medical history disclosure in the future. The EU, one of the main markets for Canadian processed horsemeat, has requested that all equine origin meats entering the EU be accompanied with documentation that catalogues the health record of each individual animal.
During the 3-year transitional period allowed for Canada to become compliant to this request, the CFIA is working on interim measures to ensure that European customers are satisfied. Likewise, the CFIA will work with producers to finalize the details that will eventually be included on this equine information document. While Bill deBarres worries that the new rules may entail a 180-day quarantine period which would be a “heavy hit in the face” for cost-conscious farmers, access to this information will likely reassure many Canadian and international horsemeat consumers.
Also of concern to many horse lovers (including those in the culinary, recreational and workhorse categories) is the border crossing facilities that US horses and other livestock use when entering Canada. Since these facilities are used for many different kinds of animals, experts like Bill desBarres assert that they are not as safe as the holding facilities at Canadian slaughterhouses and he’d like to see the border crossing barns re-designed to house specific species. The CFIA is currently studying this situation and desBarres is hopeful that the current system of clearing foreign animals will be revised; however, he also believes that pressure needs to be exerted continually on the federal government to upgrade animal safety standards.
Given the calls for border reform and increased animal health and pedigree documentation, one wonders why anyone eats horsemeat at all. Tradition plays a large part in the choice for many European and Quebec diners. Horses came to North America with the Spanish conquistadors and flourished on our wide-open plains. Although likely eaten by native Indians and early settlers, horsemeat didn’t become a common protein choice here until French citizens settled in what is now Quebec. They brought their taste for horsemeat with them and, to this day, horsemeat can be found often on menus as well as at select grocery stores in that province.
Although eating horsemeat was often controversial in France, the practice was widespread and supported publicly. In fact, when horsemeat was challenged as an appropriate food choice in France in the 19th Century, a group of horse butchers hosted what became a very famous banquet at Paris’ Grand Hotel. Every course of the menu featured horse: on offer was a range of horse-based charcuterie (today bresola, a cured sausage made from horsemeat, remains popular in Italy), horse soup, horse stew and horse steak with potatoes sautéed in horse fat; likewise, the salad was tossed in a horse “oil” based dressing and the meal concluded with a rum gateau enriched with horse marrow. The illustrious guest list included famous French writers Gustav Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas who toasted the meal with glasses of Chateau Cheval-Blanc, a celebrated premier grand cru wine from the Bordeaux region of France whose name translates to White Horse.
I interviewed one person who speculated that European interest in horsemeat is waning as their population ages and horsemeat lovers die off but desBarres disagrees. He predicts horsemeat consumption will rise in Europe since it is perceived to be a healthy and inexpensive meat choice. Culinary nutrition expert Amy Snider, P. H. Ec, confirms that horsemeat is a better nutrition choice when compared to beef. “Horsemeat is slightly lower in calories but still higher in protein than beef. Although horse is only marginally lower in total fat than beef, it contains almost 30 % less saturated fat. It’s also significantly richer in Vitamin B12 and iron,” she states.
Given his belief that these nutrition facts will appeal to health conscious consumers, desBarres anticipates an optimistic future for the Canadian horsemeat exports. “Canada is in a very good position to do well in the animal agriculture industry moving forward,” he observes. “We have plenty of space, good regulations and the know-how to be world leaders.”
A factor fuelling domestic interest in horsemeat is the regional food movement that has many chefs re-examining their local and traditional menu options. “Horses are abundant in Canada and they play a big role in our national identity and history,” says Kouprie. “They’re also part of the culinary heritage of our French settlers. If I could ensure that my sources were supplying naturally-raised animals, I’d consider horsemeat as valid a choice for Pangaea’s menu as the aboriginal hunted Caribou and farmed venison that we feature when they’re in season.” Although horsemeat is currently off the menu at Pangaea, at least two other trendy Toronto restaurants, the Black Hoof and La Palette, are offering this meat. Seeing such interest by volume customers, it’s easy to imagine ranchers clamouring to supply artisan-raised horsemeat to these chefs; but, if these farmers exist at all, they’re very elusive.
As a journalist with basic research skills, it’s usually easy to find information on the internet. With just a few well-placed keystrokes, listings for illicit entrepreneurs such as hookers and ticket scalpers pop up on my screen. Also easy to find are legal but controversial establishments such as abortion clinics and furriers. But, when I try to find a Canadian horsemeat rancher, I’m frustrated and unsuccessful. It took a lengthy interview with an industry insider for me to earn enough trust to be given the name and number of a Western Canadian horse rancher, one of apparently only four producers in the world who raises horsemeat specifically for the Japanese market. To protect his privacy; this producer asked me to withhold not only his name but also any reference to the specific province he lives in; so, for the purposes of this article we’ll call him John Smith.
Smith has an interesting story. He raises draft horses that he exports live to Japan. John Smith got into this business after being approached by Japanese business people who were seeking an artisan source of horsemeat. They were so enthusiastic about this Canadian farmer’s ability to supply the product they needed to satisfy their very particular Japanese culinary consumers, that they advanced him hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase essentials like stock and feed and to build dry pens to contain the horses. Instead of slaughtering the horses here in Canada and shipping frozen meat, these customers prefer to have the live horses flown to Japan where they can process the meat in the morning and chefs can prepare it that night. (One popular restaurant dish features fresh, raw horsemeat, shaved so thinly that it’s almost translucent, seasoned with fresh ginger and green onions.)
Selling this specialty meat to Japan is lucrative for Smith but not without risks. He confided during our interview that a counterpart of his, who operated in the US before laws there made his business illegal, had to post armed guards at the gates to his property. To say that Smith is careful to avoid attention would be an understatement. “It’s a precarious business,” he notes. “I have to be very cautious since I don’t want 500 animal activists camping out on my doorstep.” This necessary secrecy frustrates Smith and desBarres who both defend everyone’s democratic right to eat or not eat whatever livestock they choose.
Although he doesn’t want to be a public advocate for horsemeat, my undercover rancher was happy to teach me all about the culinary benchmarks for horsemeat. According to Smith, the ideal horses for culinary use are big muscled draft horses (the food encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, states that Europeans have specific preferences for Ardennes – pictured above – and Postier Breton draft horse breeds). Once weaned from their mother’s milk, the horses are fed an all-grain diet so that they develop a generous amount of the marbled fat that contributes to tenderness and flavour. Two-year-old beasts are the ideal age to slaughter. And, like beef where steers reign supreme on the plate, geldings are considered the most premium sources of horsemeat.
After spending literally hours on the phone, I now have a well-informed perspective and feel much better equipped to answer the comments raised on my original blog post. I’ve developed a strong opinion about what’s wrong with the Canadian horsemeat business, too. It isn’t how it’s regulated or that it’s cruel to kill and eat such pretty animals, but that the rules currently allow packers to put poor quality meat with a Canadian stamp on it into the international food system.
If we’re going to continue to send horsemeat to other countries I would like to see us not only adopt the EU’s documentation guidelines but develop a grading system that sorts horsemeat categories in a manner similar to how beef is graded. We also need to encourage culinary, purpose-bred horsemeat farms that operate similarly to the ones we have for not only traditional meats such as beef, pork and chicken but also for game meats such as venison and duck. Moreover, we need a horsemeat marketing board that educates chefs, retailers, consumers and even those opposed to the consumption of horsemeat about the true facts surrounding how this meat gets from farm to table. In this scenario, a transparent and profitable horsemeat processing industry would make cold cuts like bressola and salami out of less tender, medically verified advanced age horses and ensure a well-monitored supply of young, culinary-quality draft geldings for customers who want to cook fresh horsemeat.
But that’s just my opinion. Smith disagrees. While he’d gladly increase his operation to satisfy a well-paying domestic market, he thinks a marketing board would be a waste. “You might be able to encourage people in Vancouver and Toronto to try horsemeat, but in the Prairie Provinces the romantic tradition of cowboys riding horses across the plains is just too strong. None of the cowboys who work for me would ever eat horsemeat.”