Why all the horsemeat?
March 3, 2013 10:43 PM   Subscribe

I've followed the hooplah in Europe from a distance and am puzzled as to where all this horsemeat is coming from.

I mean, some cursory googling tells me that horsemeat is cheaper than beef and that there are some 7 million horses in Europe (to 90-odd million cattle), so I get where and why to some degree.

But why are there so many horses being raised in the first place?

Is the meat all coming from racehorses or horses ridden for pleasure that simply die of old age/injuries? Would that produce enough to make a noticeable difference in the mystery meat supply chain (up to 29% of the meat in some samples)? Or are they being raised specifically for meat?

If so, why? If horsemeat is cheaper than beef--because it's less desireable, presumably--I would have thought it would more sense to just raise cattle instead. Elsewhere around the world you generally don't see horses raised for meat, so I would have thought they were energetically/temperamentally/economically or otherwise unsuited to the business. What am I missing?

Apologies for any anguish my question causes to horse lovers out there.
posted by col_pogo to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I read that Romania recently outlawed horse drawn carts on public roads and that this lead to a surplus of horses in abattoirs there.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:50 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Horses are expensive to keep and in rough economic times many are sold to slaughterhouses or abandoned.
posted by jamaro at 10:51 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Racehorses are only valuable for a short period of their lives, and there are more ex-racehorses than people who want an ex-racehorse.
posted by anonymisc at 10:57 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's also that lots and lots of tests are suddenly being run. (eg 1700 tests resulting in 4 hits).
posted by Leon at 11:09 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Race horses are not a prime source. Damn. There was a great article about this, and I can't find it.

Shite. Yes. There is a reason about horse meat being more plentiful in Eastern Europe, not to do with race horses, I believe more to do with the economy there.

But just today, I read a DNA report about zebra, giraffe, and kangaroo being present in what was supposedly something else in dried meat in South Africa.

I'm pretty sure the only reason this scandal has not spread to the US industrial prepared food supply is because the US food supply has not neen tested, or the results currently are surpressed.

In other words:

This should be expected.

When frozen ground meats are shipped from factory to factory, or across borders.... And so it goes.

This scandal is not a surprise.

I work in the food industry. I never eat pre-prepared or processed foods if I can help it (I'm looking at you, Sysco, who supplies nearly 99% of the restaurants we visit in the US) and only buy my meat from the farmer's market or a trusted butcher.

FWIW - Kangaroo tastes great. The French love Cheval (horse.) I wonder how many imported cured meats I've enjoyed from Europe over the years have had other than beef or pork as ingredients - a bit late now to wonder!

Sorry I'm so flip. I've been craving better food supply protections probably since before you were born.... I love this kerfuffle. I'm hoping better food labeling and a crack down on processed foods, results.

posted by jbenben at 11:15 PM on March 3, 2013 [10 favorites]

No need to worry about being flip. I'm not actually worried about horsemeat being the food supply, per se (unsafe additives and contaminants, on the other hand...). I've eaten zebra and loved it, and I imagine horse would taste pretty similar.

I'm more just confused as to why an animal rarely raised for meat should be ending up in the industrial meat supply. I didn't imagine there were enough horses around for people to bother. Some of the links here are helping me to understand how I'm wrong on that front.
posted by col_pogo at 11:32 PM on March 3, 2013

zebra, giraffe, and kangaroo being present in what was supposedly something else in dried meat in South Africa.

Not to derail, but having lived in South Africa, I believe the zebra and giraffe part. Kangaroo...that would be a long hop.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:46 PM on March 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

The reason people are concerned about undocumented horse meat, is the possibility that the horse meat is contaminated with the drug phenylbutazone. This is a drug that is commonly given to race horses, and which has known toxic effects on humans.
posted by w0mbat at 11:57 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

why are there so many horses being raised in the first place?

Horse meat is low in fat. In large parts of the world it is not unethical to eat horse meat and it is not considered unclean or strange. It is, in fact, quite tender and widely available in many forms (cold cuts, meat balls, various snack foods). It's not a common food, but it is far from strange.

The market for horse meat is large enough that I see it in my local supermarket (location: Netherlands), and there is a nearby butcher specialising in horse meat.

are they being raised specifically for meat?

Sometimes, absolutely. The market for horse meat is a large one*, so a good proportion of horses that end up on the table are indeed bred specifically for human consumption. However it is far from being exclusively done this way.

I believe (and this is absolutely conjecture) that the majority of horses that do end up on the dining tables of the world are not bred specifically for consumption. From my understanding, these horses are sold for consumption only once their lives as work animals or riding animals become uneconomical or come to their natural end.

It's worth noting at this point that the rules for the breeding of horses suitable for human consumption are strict. Injured race horses are usually killed by euthanasia injections, making them not suitable for human consumption (and illegal to do so). Horses dying of natural causes can be used for human consumption, but not always, as it is illegal for horses treated with various veterinary drugs to put up for human consumption. (This is one of the core scares causing the current scandal… see below.)

In summary: Yes, many are bred purely for consumption, but it's not solely done this way.

*In terms of global horse meat production, there's approximately 700,000 metric tonnes produced annually. The U.S.A. produces about 10% of this, and is an exporter to one of the biggest markets for horse meat consumption in Europe: Belgium.

If so, why?

I mentioned above that horse meat is tender and low in fat. It is a tasty and healthy red meat. Although it is also true that—compared to cows—horses are relatively poor converters of grain/grass to meat, the healthiness of the meat in comparison to other red meats mean people don't mind paying a premium.

This premium, however, is not that large. This is because, as mentioned above, the original owners of horses sold for consumption do get some economic benefit from them prior to them being sold for consumption (unlike the majority of cows). I believe most of the premium comes from the production and supply chains: these are far smaller than those for more conventional meats and therefore cannot benefit from the enormous economies of scale that these other meats do.

Further reading Notes on a Scandal
I live in a country with a strong history of horse meat consumption and an acceptance thereof (the Netherlands). I'm originally from a country where horse meat consumption is still slightly taboo (Britain).

In my opinion, the 'make up' of the scandal is as follows:
  • 35% I'm not eating the meat I paid for!
  • 35% I've read that this meat can be dangerous to humans!
  • 30% Horses! That's taboo!

posted by fakelvis at 12:07 AM on March 4, 2013 [17 favorites]

Apologies in advance to horse lovers.

Horsemeat is still easy to find in France. I can name a couple of boucheries chevalines off the top of my head, just in my city. As for all meats sold in France, they must be traceable: all horsemeat I've seen for sale here has been raised in France.

So it could be a much simpler, less anxiety-inducing explanation: they're importing it from somewhere in France.

Following up on fakelvis' post, horsemeat producers include, in order of highest to lower production: Mexico, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kirghizstan, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Poland, Italy, Romania, Chile, Senegal, Uruguay, France, Colombia, and Spain.

So right there you've got three Western European countries, namely France, Italy, and Spain, who could also be suppliers.

I can also vouch for fakelvis' opinion of the makeup of the scandal. Horsemeat is still common enough here not to raise eyebrows at all. I can't tell you how many French people have approached me (I'm originally from Oregon USA so the default "American point of view" in my circles) to go, genuinely worried they're being lied to, "erm.... fraula..... was the horsemeat poisoned or something? Because I can't figure out why it's being called a scandal, obviously our media aren't telling us everything because people are really worked up about it..."
posted by fraula at 1:14 AM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

My understanding is that in Kazakhstan (and many other places) they have a specific breed of horse that they raise just for consumption, and it's different from the breed that they ride. This probably applies to other places too.
posted by cacao at 1:35 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In France, horse meat consumption has been encouraged since the late 1970s as a way to save the local draught horse breeds, which were disappearing due to the mechanization of agriculture. This was actually a conservation genetics programme. Some colleagues of mine were working on this at the time and it was paradoxical that these people, who really loved horses, were busy at making horses seem palatable and eatable to the general public in order to save them. Draught breeds were even renamed "heavy" breeds. Horse consumption still declined though, and since draught horses have become popular for leisure/tourism activities, they're officially called "draught" again.

Amusingly, the horse meat scandal has resulted in a renewed interest in horse meat and in extra business for the boucheries chevalines, since the discourse surrounding the scandal has been about traceability rather than quality, horse meat being otherwise called good, safe and cheap in the media.
posted by elgilito at 4:27 AM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Slightly off topic, but remember the UK has not so long ago gone through huge problems with foot and mouth and mad cow disease, I know my extended family in the UK are more freaked out by what this all means to the general safety of their meat supply than the fact they might have eaten horse. My Aunt volunteers for a horse rescue group and theorises the horse meat is coming from Eastern Europe, her main concern is regulations on the horses treatment before death as Western European that eat it tend to have more regulations in place for treatment and for what is in the meat. Not being sure where it is from and what other nasties are in the meat is a big worry.
posted by wwax at 5:13 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

A little OT, but Food Safety News is a good source for ... food safety news.

Here's their coverage horse meat, which includes the EU scandal, plus other horse meat news, such as the return of horse slaughterhouses to the US.

Add it to your RSS reader (but try not to read the feed before lunch).
posted by notyou at 6:27 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Shoot. Missed the edit window.

And here's a neat infographic (linked by FSN) produced by the Australia Institute of Food Safety. It traces the horse meat back to Poland.
posted by notyou at 6:33 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote in his book The Man Who Ate Everything:
The United States is the largest horse-meant exporter in the world (400,000 animals a year are sent to slaughter) because it has the largest recreational horse population. These animals become "surplus" when horse lovers unnecessarily breed their pets, owners sell their racehorses after only a few years, and recreational riders trade up. Slaughter and export become inevitable when this surplus drives down resale prices below about $600 an animal. The object of Ms.__’s rage should be the inhumane practices of a good part of the horse-slaughtering industry. And the unwillingness of most horse owners to care for their discarded pets until they die a natural death.
This, I think, provides a pretty good idea of where all the horsemeat comes from: "horse-lovers." Frankly, if it were culturally acceptable, the same thing would be happening with cat meat and dog meat resulting from the surpluses in these animals caused for the most part by cat- and dog-lovers.
posted by slkinsey at 7:47 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote in his book The Man Who Ate Everything: The United States is the largest horse-meant exporter in the world
I can't vouch for the accuracy of this information in the distant past, but this is completely false today. The USDA banned the slaughter of horses in 2006 and although congress did not extend the ban in 2011, there are no horse slaughterhouses in the US today. source
posted by Lame_username at 8:32 AM on March 4, 2013

Horse meat is tasty, although I only get to eat it when abroad (raw as basashi). I was very happy when President Obama legalized processing it for human consumption in late 2011. It looks like things are progressing nicely in that regard.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of this information in the distant past, but this is completely false today. The USDA banned the slaughter of horses in 2006 and although congress did not extend the ban in 2011, there are no horse slaughterhouses in the US today

Just because the US doesn't have horse slaughterhouses doesn't mean that it is not a leading exporter. The US ships the horses to its neighbors Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2013

As you can read in Food Safety News, horse slaughterhouses (for export sale) will be returning to the US, soon, Lame_username.
posted by notyou at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2013

I can't vouch for the accuracy of this information in the distant past, but this is completely false today

It would be more accurate to say the US is a large exporter for the international horsemeat market. The horses are walking when they are exported from the states.

From a NYT article about the USA export market of horses (which also discusses concerns about doped racehorses as a food source):
Some 138,000 horses were sent [from the USA] to Canada or Mexico in 2010 alone to be turned into meat for Europe and other parts of the world, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

...equine slaughter facilities in Mexico, where 80 percent of the horses arrive from the United States...
posted by jamaro at 9:50 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Elgilito has it, most of the horse meat sold as food is bred for food. When I was into horse breeding, I made a point of eating horse meat, because it was a good thing for preserving all the ancient horse and pony races of Europe. Not only the draught horses, but also regional types now replaced by standard warm-blood. the scare right now is that since the meat is undeclared, it may well be from illegal sources, including horses that have been heavily drugged, since that is a practice even among amateurs. Romanian cart horses and donkeys are an other aspect, but while they may be very lean and sineous, they are probably not dangerous to eat.
And yeah, never eat pre-cooked food, ever. Only buy chopped meat from a real butcher. If you cannot afford this, vegetarianism is a sounder option. I'm not being arrogant here, I only buy meat when I can afford the best quality, and that is not every week.
posted by mumimor at 1:02 PM on March 4, 2013

Another random thought for you- in Muslim tradition, it is considered that horse meat is neither defined as strictly permissible (like fish, beef, chicken, and many other meats) or forbidden (like pork, blood, and some other stuff), but uncertain. It is because the animal is considered a 'companion animal' to man that it isn't strictly permissible- dogs fall into the same category (although dog meat is probably not permissible for other reasons).

Besides Kazakhstan mentioned before, Tunisia is another majority-Muslim country I can think of where horse meat is available. It's considered a cheap quality meat however, I believe.
posted by cacao at 8:36 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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