Friday, February 27, 2004

Whoa Nelly!

Now some (like my wife) might find the humour a little bit off, but since my registration was about to expire, I tried the other day to get the following vanity licence plate:

I did hesitate, thinking that this kind of provocation would not be wise, and might lead to a strange episode of road rage directed against me by a vegetarian.

Trouble was, somebody out there has already claimed it. I can only hope they didn't use Virginia's Horse Lover plate:

...unless they were French, Italian, Swiss, Japanese or Belgian, of course.

The recent mad cow scare led to a small increase in the consumption of exotic meats in Europe and North America (alligator, hippo, horse, kangaroo, ostrich, etc.), but in fact most of these meats have their associated risks as well. A large risk is systemic, in that the inspection procedures for these meats are much less well-defined than those for the standard meats: beef, pork, mutton, fish, and fowl.

Given the extreme rarity of vCJD incidences (119 known cases worldwide as of January 2002) and the laxer inspections of these other meats (except horse and kangaroo, see below), it is very likely that consumers who chose exotics over beef due to the vCJD cases in fact increased their risk of contracting other food-borne diseases at the cost if an infinitesimal decrease in vCJD risk.

For alligator meat, the main risk besides improper handling is due to the mercury burden, especially in the Florida Everglades (ref.). However there is also some parasitic risk from trichinella, trematodes (flukes), ascarids (roundworms) and pentastomes (ref. [PDF]).

In the case of kangaroo, although many of the above parasites can be present in wild animals, a well-established inspection system has been in place since 1993 in Australia for meat raised or culled for use in human consumption. The only parasite of note is a nematode Pelicitus roemeri with a 1988 detected appearance rate of about 1.4% (ref.).

Since horsemeat is often consumed raw or extremely rare, there can be a (small) trichinosis risk. There was an outbreak in France in 1985, and more recently in 1998 from horses brought in from Eastern Europe (ref.).

I noticed that the U.S. had decided to stop all importation of French meat products last Tuesday, so I decided to look at the issue of French horsemeat consumption (although the flow of horsemeat is decidedly from the US to France, rather than the other way around). The data below is all from the most official source I could find, Office National Interprofessionel des Viandes, de l'Elevage et de l'Aviculture, OFIVAL, the French National Office of Meats, Breeding, and Poultry Farming (the Ministry of Agriculture didn't seem to have much). I have to say that the OFIVAL synthesis notes on horsemeat are already five years old, and getting a little ripe. There is also a monthly bulletin from which I pulled some 2002 data.

The most obvious fact is that the consumption of horsemeat declined in France during the 1988-1998 period, and according to later notes, continues to do so (imports dropped 10% from 2001 to 2002). Most meat is supplied from imports - in 2002, 30% came from other EC countries, 23% from Argentina, 21% from Canada, and 11% from the USA.

The French market is highly polarized. While 24% of the population consume horsemeat more than once a year, 43% of French refuse to consume it, and the remaining 33% either consume it once a year or less, have stopped because of unavailability, or have never tried it at all and are neutral. The industry itself is extremely sensitive to the public opinion, and has decided not to try and promote consumption using the media given the outcry that this might provoke.

This is a table from OFIVAL that compares the changes in consumption for various meats in France over the 1988-1998 period:

Consumption of meats in France 1988-1998





percent change 88-98

98 Consumption per capita

Average price (1998)

Large Bovines






60.0 F/kg







72.4 F/Kg







56.9 F/Kg







33.9 F/Kg







73.1 F/Kg







51.9 F/Kg







33.9 F/Kg

TOTAL (incl. Fowl)






47.4 F/Kg (est.)

Numbers are in the exquisite units: "equivalent carcass tonnes," and I have added the last row with its calculations.

What I thought was interesting here was the over 43% decrease in horsemeat consumption in the decade in question. Most of the difference has been made up by increases in poultry and pork. From the average price column, an abvious conclusion might be that this is price driven, since poultry and pork are the cheapest meats, and the two largest decreases, in horse and veal, are the most expensive meats.

Probably most fundamental is the actual level of consumption: only about 0.66% of all meat consumed in France is horsemeat.

I would love to find a similar table for US consumption to be able to look at the proportions of alligator, armadillo, elk, rabbit, moose, snake, and venison.

...and no, I have not tried horsemeat. I would not elect to, but I think I could. I have had plenty of venison, buffalo, rabbit, and wildfowl, and even had several alligator steaks. My lightning visit to Cairns never afforded me the chance at kangaroo. Oh yes - I have had ants.

And the licence plate? I ended up getting COI-O3 on a National Air and Space Museum plate. A hug and a kiss to whoever figures it out.


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