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Heather Abrey file photo

Heather Abrey file photo

The European horse meat scandal drives home the point that it’s important to know exactly what you are eating, and where it came from.

Horse meat: yay or neigh

Ethics of eating horses aside, what do we know about the supply of horse meat in Canada?

The European horse meat scandal that galloped into news headlines recently is a good indication of how much of our food system is based on trust, and that secrecy is our enemy.

In Ireland, routine testing of processed foods containing meat revealed levels of equine DNA in what were supposed to be beef burgers.

The scandal represents a tortuous whodunit web of blind misalliances; a trifecta of what I can imagine was either stupidity, negligent labelling or outright malice.

It went down like this: the headquarters of a French mega-food company ordered beef from another French company who sourced the protein through a Cypriot meat-trader who in turn subcontracted the deal to a second Dutch meat-trader who bought the meat from a Romanian abattoir from whence it was shipped back west to the original mega-food company’s Luxembourg factory for processing before being transported along the home stretch to 16 European Union countries for sale.

That’s a long way from the pasture to the plate, but the Romanian abattoir claims it merely shipped what was ordered. Could all of that happen here? Not very likely, but it is good to be vigilant and understand some of the issues.

Unlike our cows and pigs, horses in Canada and the United States aren’t a familiar part of the food chain that has been set up for humans. When it comes to our bovine and porcine protein, however, animals are registered from the moment they are born, tagged and monitored closely up to and including the very day that they are dispatched and put on display in meat coolers at grocery stores for purchase.

This is our system, but I’m not saying to trust it completely. In fact, it is perhaps the best thing to be a little bit suspicious and to never trust any system.

But we do know something about how our cows, pigs and other proteins are processed. If you know your farmer, you know even more. Finding that same level of trust with horse meat is more complicated.

While horses are currently not slaughtered for food in the U.S., we do slaughter horses for food in Canada. There are four nationally regulated abattoirs doing the deed and shipping the meat to countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, Russia and Italy. Roughly 20,000 tonnes of horse meat is consumed annually in each of those countries. Quebec eats horse meat too, it should be pointed out.

Right now, it would be quite easy for a Kitchener restaurateur to source properly regulated horse meat from a supplier and prepare it for customers in Waterloo Region — if there were a hunger for it and they were willing to pay what I imagine would be a fairly hefty price.

The ethics of eating horse aside, the issue is whether we are familiar and comfortable enough with horse meat in our system to trust it? Where does it come from (western Canada, I’m surmising), and what do we know about it? How do we know it doesn’t have “bute,” phenylbutazone, a strong anti-inflammatory for horses that is dangerous to humans if ingested?

And I can’t help but make this connection, though it is hypothetical food for thought: there are 50,000  jobs on the line as the harness race industry in Ontario feels the financial pain as the slots-at-racetracks program is cut to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
What happens to a surplus of horses that can no longer be cared for? No doubt many will have to be slaughtered. Could that be pet food? Certainly. Could the cheap meat end up in the hands of an opportunistic meat-trader somewhere overseas selling into the human food chain? Who knows?

So, the EU scandal drives home just how important it is to know where our food comes from, especially when the foodstuff — like horse meat — is not part of our mainstream food culture and its conventions.

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Andrew Coppolino is a Kitchener-based
food writer and broadcaster.
Visit him at

One Response to “Horse meat: yay or neigh”

  1. armoric says:

    Since North America sources horses for slaughter from racetracks, private sales, public auctions, etc., including those deemed too old, damaged or “unusable” as show horses or pets; the chances of the horse meat being free from phenylbutazone, a.k.a. bute (used as commonly in horses as Aspirin, Tylenol and other over the counter medications in humans) is slim to none. Bute is a carcinogen to humans. There are too many loopholes in the sale/shipping/slaughter process. Not to mention the normally used shipping and slaughter practices that would easily be described as cruel and terrifying for the poor animals, most of whom have spent their entire lifetime being trusting of their human companions. As a horse owner, I cannot see my pet as a food source any more than the average dog or cat owner would consider their pet as a meal.

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