Written by Heather Clemenceau
All artwork copyrighted – use with permission only.
When you come across references to eating horsemeat, you probably think of the French, Mongols, or Kazakhs. “Oh yes,” you say, maybe attempting to hide a slight shudder “they eat horses don’t they?” Despite an attempt by Italian politicians to ban horsemeat in Italy a few years ago, certainly the Italians need to be included when discussing countries and cultures that consume horses. But I’m not singling out Italians for criticism; the following observations could easily be applied to any Old World horse-eating culture, especially a culture that relies on North American horses as a food source.
Today I just returned from a small grocery shop in the Italian area of Toronto. It’s an exceptionally tiny 600 sq foot or so, located in an older strip mall. It’s probably been around since the 70s. I peruse the comestibles at the front, consisting of pasta, rice, and olive oil, not really paying attention since I am focused on one area of the store only – the meat counter. I know in advance that the proprietors are selling horse meat, so I’m apprehensive about seeing it – a slaughtered family horse/riding steed/racehorse/retired school horse, dis-assembled in the display case.
There were two unwrapped slabs of meat, each one half the size of my torso. A few days ago this was a living horse, and probably amongst the 92% of all horses who are young and healthy at the time of slaughter. I am wondering where it was living a few days ago. My ruse for going into the shop was that I was looking for meat for a BBQ, so I asked what meat I was looking at, already knowing the answer. I professed surprise and asked if they had any other meat, the man replied “no – we only sell horse because all other meats have bacteria.”
To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for this answer. I know, as does most everyone else, that bacteria cover every single surface that is not sterilized. Raw meat should always be regarded as a likely source of pathogens – meat or poultry dishes are usually incriminated in more than 70% of incidents of foodborne illness. The skin and gastrointestinal tract of any healthy animal carry a large population of microorganisms that can include a number of pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter. These come primarily from the animal’s gut but can be transferred to the skin via faeces, a transfer which certainly happens during the slaughter process – which is one of the main reasons people cook meat at high temperatures. Parasites, if present, can be found at a number of locations in the animal’s body.
So it’s impossible for me to resist the challenge of presenting him with the facts, and I respond with as much diplomacy as I can muster. “Sir, this meat (or any meat) could harbor parasites and microbes such as Trichinella, Lysteria monocytogenes, Clostridium Perfringens, Staph aureus,“ etc. Emphatically he maintains otherwise – “No, horse does not. All other meats do but horse does not. You see chicken’s feet? Bacteria can get in the feet. Horses have hooves. No bacteria. Horses do not get sick.” “But,” I proclaim earnestly, “every surface naturally has bacteria growing on it; horses don’t live in an hygienic environment, and a slaughterhouse is not an hygienic environment either.” I touch the display with my hand (the counter isn’t even cool – isn’t a meat counter supposed to be chilled?) – “I’ve now transferred bacteria from my hand to the display case.” He stares, either not understanding or unrelenting. Then I ask, “what’s the difference between cows and goats and horses? They all have hooves – what makes the horse’s hoof different, and why does that make the horse sterile of bacteria?” He shakes his head. Now he starts to protectively remove the meat from the display case, as if it’s in harms way by my touching the display case, but in doing so he proceeds to touch it with his BARE HANDS. At this point it’s become rather like watching Penn and Teller get people worked up over their “dihydrogen monoxide” skit. He realizes that I don’t believe him, so my punishment is that he gives me the silent treatment. Or perhaps it’s really the Evil Eye treatment. I never get the chance to ask him where he got the supply, which was my main reason for being there in the first place.
I’d encountered germ denialism before, although not in a grocery store, but this wasn’t quite the same thing. The foundations of microbiology and infectious diseases are based on the work of Pasteur and Koch. The resultant Germ Theory of Disease is the single most important contribution to medical science and practice, ever. But this man wasn’t denying the existence of bacteria – he believed in bacteria, just not on horses though. He’s not alone in his misunderstanding about horsemeat either – I found an article at Chow.com which incorrectly stated that horsemeat is free from tuberculosis and tapeworms. While tuberculosis in horses is rare, there are still 134 references to the disease in horses on the Pubmed database. Tapeworm infection is dependent upon where a horse lives in North America; any horse that IS free from tapeworms (or any of its resident parasites), will also provide you with a dish of meat tainted with veterinary residues. Collies and other breeds of dogs are very sensitive to Ivermectim in wormers, which is why horsemeat doesn’t even make good dog food.
So now I’m left wondering how our old-world proprietor could have arrived at his conclusion about horsemeat. Does this belief have any basis in fact, the way some urban legends start out legitimately, at a camp fire or slumber party, and gain new momentum and life after-the-fact. Enter Wikipedia, to provide some enlightenment. Apparently, commercially prepared Salami which is often made with horsemeat, is cured in warm, humid conditions to encourage growth of the bacteria involved in the fermentation process. Sugars are added as a food source for the bacteria during the curing process. Lactic acid is produced by the bacteria as a waste product. The acid produced by the bacteria makes the meat an inhospitable environment for other, pathogenic bacteria. While this is interesting, it certainly doesn’t explain why this guy believes that horses are impervious to microbes. Perhaps there is a biblical reference somewhere? What’s also interesting is that the latin word for sausage is botulus, suggesting an association with botulism, despite the curing process.
Horsemeat certainly is not free of bacteria (nor is it free from veterinary drug residue) and it is irresponsible to promote horse meat consumption due to the appalling abuses of animals in the industry. It wouldn’t have made any difference to his entrenched beliefs, but I wish I could have shown the proprietor the first page of a Pubmed search for horsemeat, (one of many) which details the findings of case-controlled and co-horted studies of meat contaminated by various sources.
While the proprietor’s belief about horsemeat may be similar to many other old-world customs and beliefs that don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, it’s still dangerous to perpetuate myths. Again, this blog entry is not a post intended to unfairly criticize Italians or the Italian community; when it comes down to ethnic groups and their food consumption practices, I am completely “agnostic.” The issue is solely about businesses or individuals who provide horsemeat to end-user consumers. But we can’t win every battle – we’re never going to convince every denier. You have to choose your battles. Whether it’s this small example of superstition and lack of understanding of the natural world, or the larger battle of horse slaughter in an indifferent world, we must always use our best efforts at persuasion. Sadly, when dealing with entrenched ideas, we cannot win an argument with facts.