Peter Albertson: Why the fuss about horsemeat?

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PITTSFIELD

During the past couple of months I've been amused to read about Europe's meat travails. The continent is in an uproar about horsemeat in their hamburger. But why? Will the horsemeat hurt anybody? Does it contain horrible things, like bugs, insects, or disease?

When, 50 some odd years ago I worked briefly in France, I remember saying to my colleague, later my wife, "Look at those beautiful horse heads over those shops. And they're all gold, or gilt, or something like that." She had lived in Paris a few years earlier. She explained that those shops were boucherie chevaline, or horse butchers, and they apparently did a thriving business, especially in lower-income communities. Horsemeat was cheaper than beef, was tender and had a good flavor -- something like a combination of beef and venison -- as I discovered one day in a cheap restaurant.

But, the world has changed: there is a continuing scandal involving a number of meat suppliers and retailers in Europe. Horsemeat has "magically" appeared in hamburger, lasagna and other foods sold by some of the largest retailers. For example, Ikea, in Europe sells foodstuffs -- horrors, some of their products were adulterated by small amounts of horsemeat mixed with the beef. The company dragged a lot of its beef products from the shelves and even issued a public apology.

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The scandal metastasized until Switzerland's Nestle, one of the largest and most famous food companies in the world, said it was removing prepared pasta meals from store shelves in Italy and Spain. They weren't admitting there was horsemeat in their ragu, but it was just a precaution. And the company promptly increased its testing after discoveries of horsemeat in its British foods and "traces" of horse DNA in two products made with beef supplied by a German company, H.J. Schypke.

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Then Birds Eye on Feb. 23 pulled three beef-ready meals from shelves in the UK and Ireland as a precaution after two percent horse DNA appeared in its chili con carne manufactured for the Belgian market. Who knew that Belgians ate chili?

In Scotland more than 300 schools withdrew beef burgers from their menus after a frozen beef burger from a school kitchen in North Lanarkshire tested positive for horse DNA, while in Wales beef supplies to schools have been pulled back. Wales discovered that some burgers delivered to schools had been made at the Burger Manufacturing Company in Builth Wells, Powys, one of the most recent producers to be caught up in the growing horsemeat uproar. CNN then reported that in Iceland (Iceland!) horsemeat appeared unexpectedly.

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Finally, the most unkindest cut of all: Our very own Taco Bell's London branch, discovered horsemeat in some of its beef products. Taco Bell said it was "very disappointed to learn that some batches of ground beef" from a European supplier "tested positive for horsemeat." The company immediately pulled ground beef from sale in its three eateries in England, thus disappointing those folks who went there for fine dining.

Millions of pounds of meat are being dumped. A company that distributes frozen foods got caught up in the turmoil and is going to sue the Romanian producer it blames for the problem. The French arm of the Swedish frozen food firm, Findus, said it would file a legal complaint against the unnamed Romanian meat preparation business. Findus claimed it had been told that its products were being made with French beef (very good stuff indeed) not Romanian horsemeat. "We were deceived," the company said. "There are two victims in this affair: Findus and the consumer."

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What's the problem? We butcher cows, those calm and peaceful antibiotic-laden animals, and those monumental buffalos (bison, more properly) and cute little calves for their liver and delicately flavored veal chops. We kill pigs and goats, and we do in chickens. As the horsemeat furor plays out in Europe the U.S. Department of Agriculture will probably approve a horse-slaughtering plant in New Mexico in the next few months -- making it the first time since 2007 that horsemeat will be allowed for human consumption in the United States.

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It's worth noting that horsemeat has been scarfed down by humans for thousands of years. It's a dry, soft meat with little fat. The owner of a Sicilian restaurant, Monsu, in Philadelphia, says that horsemeat is delicious and he wants to share it with his customers. "I am going to embrace horsemeat wholeheartedly at Monsu," Peter McAndrews says. He isn't worried about any public outrage. "If you're serving something and it's not doing well, that's when you don't serve it anymore." McAndrews said.

Chef Marc Vetri says he would love to serve horsemeat. "Seriously, who decided what animals to eat and not to eat?" Vetri said.. "Is a horse better than a cow or a rabbit? Really I don't get all the fuss." He recently had a horse filet mignon in Montreal, from a horse probably raised in Pennsylvania and sent to Canada for slaughter.

I checked the Internet and found more than 100 organizations and big name performers (like Clint Eastwood, Whoopi Goldberg, Snoop Dogg, Paul McCartney, Ellen DeGeneres, Morgan Freeman, and Willie Nelson) that oppose horse slaughter for human consumption.

So, where would that leave us, those people who want to eat horsemeat because it tastes good and is cheaper?

Peter Albertson is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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