Friday, May 28, 2010

A horse is a horse, of course, of course

I think I need to talk about my decision to serve horse meat at Bistro 7 1/4. To begin, I want all of you to know, this is not a decision I made lightly. Many of the things I do are spontaneous or whimsical, but this decision is something I have been wrestling with for 2 years.

Personally, I don't have any problem eating horse meat. (I will get in to my own reasons shortly.) But serving horse meat has stirred up some controversy. I have a very good customer who informed me she would not be coming to our restaurant as long as we have horse meat on the menu. Another customer, who owns horses, joked after finishing his meal here that he would have to go home and count his horses. There was a little on line discussion about the ethics of horse meat on our facebook page. Other customers have been excited by it and have wanted to try it. Those who try it, enjoy it.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to tell you a little story about rabbits. I was serving rabbit pot pie as a lunch special one day. When a customer heard what the special was, she started to cry, told us she had rabbits for pets, and walked out. I don't know if she ever returned. What I wanted to say to her was that although people have rabbits as pets, the rabbits I was serving were not anyone's pets. These rabbits were raised for food in the same way we raise chicken, pigs and cows for food.

Eating horse meat is perfectly acceptable in some cultures, and totally taboo in others. France, has restaurants devoted to the preparation and service of horsemeat; but just across the channel in England the idea of eating horse is horrific. The United States has predominantly followed the English example. In Canada, it is a little more complicated. English speaking Canada is generally opposed to the use of horse meat, but in Quebec it is far more acceptable. All through the world, you will find examples where horse is accepted and counter-examples where it is strictly forbidden.

In a multi-cultural society, we are always dealing with the questions of what is acceptable and what is taboo. For Jews and Muslims, eating pig is taboo. Hindus don't eat cow. Very few of us, eat bugs, although that is a common food staple in much of the world. I don't think i could eat the meat of a dog, but if i was in a place where it was culturally acceptable would i turn it down? For some of my customers, eating any meat at all is wrong.

I guess what it comes down to is the ethical choices we make as individuals, and the lines that we draw for ourselves. Every time you put food in your mouth, you make an ethical choice. And these choices are complex. Is it organic? Was it humanely raised? Does its production or shipping harm the environment? How much was the farmer paid for his work? Was the farmer treated fairly? Who are we supporting by paying for this food? The list goes on.

The ethical decision includes what species of animal we are okay with. I believe, that if you are willing to eat one type of animal, you should be able to eat any type. I say this, but i know that I would draw a line somewhere. And that's what it is all about. Where do you draw the line? Some people eat fish, but not fowl. Some eat no meat, but dairy and eggs are fine. Others avoid all animal products. And others, eat whatever you put in front of them.

As a restaurant owner and chef, I make ethical decisions about what I will serve every day. I don't always make the right one. Sometimes price, convenience or expedience wins out over the "right" choice. Sometimes the "right" choice isn't clear. I may have conflicting "goods". Which is better, organic lettuce grown 2000 miles away shipped in plastic bags or non-organic lettuce grown a few miles down the road with the mud still on the roots? I choose to buy much of my meat from local farmers. I choose, for the most part, fish that is considered sustainable. I use eggs that come from free run chickens. I support small, local grocers.

But once I have made the menu, the ethical decisions don't stop with me. You, the customer get to make those choices in what you order. If you think eating pork is wrong, then you will choose not to order it. Some people come to my restaurant, the "home-of-giant-grilled-hammer-chop", and order strictly vegetarian food. Some vegans come, and trust me to make them some thing special. Maybe you like duck but think foie gras is wrong. Then I suggest you order the duck and not the foie. Maybe you choose to only order organic wines.

And so, if you come in and I am serving horse, don't get upset with me. Just don't order it. If no one orders horse, it won't stay on the menu very long.

Is it wrong to serve or eat horse? I don't think so. At least it is no more or less wrong than eating cow or any other animal. So back to the question of why I put horse on the menu. Partly because it is a tasty, healthy meat. But I guess i wanted to engage in this very debate. The horse meat controversy is a catalyst for a lively debate about the ethics of food.

So, I invite any of you to come down to talk to me, email me ( or post comments on this blog. This conversation is worth having.

Everyday I make choices, I don't always make the right ones. But I sure do think about them a lot. And I guess that is my point. We all need to think about the food we put in our mouth.


  1. I was recently at your restuartant and I requested a meal that contained no pork and you and your staff were excellent at accomodating. The food was exceptional!
    With respect to your blog, you made a very good point; if you dont like something... then dont order it- It's all about choice. And those of you that are passionate about horsies and fuzzy bunnies, then stay home and rent a copy of The Horse Whisperer.... But I guarantee you that it will not come close to the experience you would have at 7 1/4.

  2. I find this post to be well written and your point well argued. I respect your philosophical choice to serve horse. I wish more people would be satisfied with making their own ethical decisions without needing to convert others to their view.

  3. Thank you Bre, and Thank you Anonymous, whom ever you are.

    Bre, I get the feeling that you would choose not to eat horse. And that is great! That is the beauty of a free and responsible society, that we can recognize that other people choices might not be the same as the ones we would make, but that they have the right to make those choices.

  4. Horse meat is unfit for humans to eat.
    Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 48, Issue 5, May 2010, Pages 1270-1274
    Association of phenylbutazone usage with horses bought for slaughter: A public health risk
    Nicholas Dodman, Nicolas Blondeau, Ann M. Marini

    Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs - prohibited as well Phenylbutazone, known as "bute," is a veterinary drug only label-approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use by veterinarians in dogs and horses. It has been associated with debilitating conditions in humans and it is absolutely not permitted for use in food-producing animals. USDA/FSIS has conducted a special project to for this drug in selected bovine slaughter plants under federal inspection. An earlier pilot project by FSIS found traces less than 3% of the livestock selected for testing, sufficient cause for this special project. There is no tolerance for this drug in food-producing livestock, and they and their by-products are condemned when it is detected. Dairy producers must not use this drug in food-producing livestock and if it is found, those producers will be subject to FDA investigation and possible prosecution.

    Horse Owner Survey Shows NSAID Use Trends
    by: Edited Press Release
    April 30 2009, Article # 14073

    In a recent survey, 96% of respondents said they used nonsteroidal
    anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to control the joint pain and
    inflammation in horses, and 82% administer them without always
    consulting their veterinarian. More than 1,400 horse owners and trainers
    were surveyed to better understand attitudes toward NSAIDs, in a project
    sponsored by Merial, the maker of Equioxx (firocoxib).

    99 percent of horses that started in California last year raced on bute, according to Daily Racing Form. Bute is banned in the United States and Canada for horses intended for the food chain. That’s a permanent ban.
    Are horses used to make pet food?
    Horses are not raised for food in the United States so they are not generally used in commercial pet foods.

    Nonsteroidal Medication (NSAID’s)

    Phenylbutazone (Bute), flunixin meglamine (Banamine), and ketoprofen (Ketofen) are the most common NSAID’s used in horses while aspirin and ibuprofen are the most commonly used NSAID’s in humans. These are very effective in eliminating discomfort and are usually the first line of therapy in minor musculoskeletal pain.


    The systemic NSAID group includes phenylbutazone (Butazolidin) and flunixin meglumine (Banamine), which are 2 of the most widely prescribed drugs in equine medicine.

    Volume 25, Issue 3, Pages 98-102 (March 2005)
    Dr Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD, DACVS (Associate Professor)a, Dr Sam Jones, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Associate Professor)b

  5. Pleasure was all mine Chef Alex- And Tom Durfee, that was a wonderful job of cutting and pasting... Was that opening statement of horse meat being unfit for humans to eat your statement or was that a cut and paste too? I am sure there is an argument however it has no structure. Your bold "unfit" statement lacks credibility- Horse meat is consumed throughout the globe and is subjected to strict government regulation in most countries. That said, I would deem hot dogs to be more unfit to eat than horse meat.

    Again, my compliments to Chef Alex for expanding the horizons of an otherwise gastronomically challenged city.

  6. Thank you Tom for your comments and for furthering the discussion. I feel the need to look further into the information that you have given me. My understanding is that horse meat we use is from horses raised specifically for food production, and as such must go through the same standards and inspection as any other livestock raised for food.

    I am a cynical fellow, so I always question the data from scientific studies. When it comes to food, you can almost always find one report which will argue a point and another study which says the opposite. It is important to examine multiple studies to see where the general scientific consensus lands. It is also very important to look at the sources of the studies. Who is conducting the study? Who is funding the study? What types of questions are being asked and what is the methodology? The study on salmon farming commissioned by the salmon farming industry looked very favourably on the environmental and health benefits of farmed salmon.

    Further, I feel your own research undermines your statement that "horse meat is unfit for humans to eat." You claim that horses treated with "bute" are unsafe for consumption, but then a few lines down, you quote, "Bute is banned in the United States and Canada for horses intended for the food chain. That’s a permanent ban." This would seem to indicate, that the horse meat I am serving, from horses "intended for the food chain" would be safe.

    thanks for your comments, everybody!

    1. the only horses in Canada that are safe to consume are the mares and foals from the PMU farms that are supplying Pfizer with the hormones to make Premarin.

      The greater majority of the horses that are being sent to slaughter are race horses that have stopped being profitable, have gone lame, or just didn't make the top 3 that day, and are being given bute on a regular basis, not to mention the wormers every 3 months (it takes 6 months to release from the tissues). More than half of the horses that are slaughtered here in Canada come from the US. There are no proper regulations in regards to the slaughter of equines. By the way, it is now LEGAL for equines to be mixed in with cattle when being slaughtered. Meaning that our beef may be now be mixed with equine meat that is toxic to ingest.

      Here is a link to the list of banned substances in horses intended for consumption

      It's not just bute and wormers, but topical ointments and fly sprays that are banned as well. In summer months the use of these products go up drastically with all of the equine events there are from rodeo's to show jumping to horse camps for kids. It's a never ending cycle that the CFIA has turned a blind eye to and refuses to acknowledge. All of the information is there for anyone to see. You just have to look for it.

      Here is the report for Pasture to Plate -

      You can also view the veterinarians report of this investigation

      Now there is a documentary called "Our Daily Bread" that shows the way they slaughter and pick our food over in European countries ( that is humane and ethical euthanasia of animals. We come nowhere close to it here. Our slaughter is bordering barbaric and the condition that the animals arrive to the slaughter houses in is just as horrific.

      I am not against the consumption of meat, as it is a regular staple in my diet. I am against the unethical and inhumane practices in which our meat is obtained in the abbatoires.

  7. Anonymous,
    Don't dis the 'dog! Hotdogs are one of my favourite foods. Call it a guilty pleasure...


  8. Perhaps we'll see this on the bistro's menu soon?,9171,1993883,00.html

  9. All good with the H.D. in fact I was grilling some today (Don't take me for a food snob). I used the "hot dog" to drive home the point of foods that are fit to eat-What I was eluding to is the purity of its contents vs. horsemeat- With hot dogs you get... well lips and (Fill in the blank) whereas with horsemeat, I know I am getting.. horse.

  10. Ironically hot dogs in North America (are they sold anywhere else?) are mostly made up of non-nasty parts of the cow these days, presumably because of the rep they seem to have acquired. However, were you to cross the pond, you might partake in a little delicacy known as Black or Blood Sausage, which is composed of exactly what you're thinking... So what's unfit to eat really? Just food for thought.

  11. I love your restaurant and although I will never order horse meat I will not stop coming to enjoy all of the other items on the menu! It's all about choice and like others have said, if you don't like it, don't order it! I think it's important to respect the animal that you are using as food and to use as much of it as you can without wasting parts. I appreciate how thoughtful you are about the choices you make for your restaurant! I hope to enjoy a meal with you and your staff soon!

  12. Rhonda you can respect the animal more by not eating them. He would be more thoughtful by not serving corpses.

  13. No horses are raised specifically for meat, at least not in North America. They are someone's pet or racehorse and when they are no longer wanted many end up in slaughterhouses. Regarding the bute issue: once a horse ends up in the kill pen, bute can no longer be administered for a certain period of time prior to slaughter.

  14. Is it disrespectful when a Lion eats a gazelle?

    Anytime we eat, we take a life. Which lives we choose to end is where the debate lies. Is the life of a horse intrinsically more valuable than the life of a carrot?. Most of us would say yes, it is.

    All of this goes back to the Ancients and their "great chain of being". The natural philosophers categorized life in a hierarchy. Human beings were on top. (actually in those day, Man was on top) The group we belong to, the primates, were the top of the group we called mammals. Mammals are above birds which are above reptiles which are above amphibians,which are above fish ... which are above plants. The categories were decided based on humanity being the pinnacle and all other species were compared to that "ideal" So, the more characterisitcs your species shared with humans, the higher up the chain you would stand. Categories like consciousness, self consciousness, mobility, sexual vs asexual reproduction, were all used to define the species.
    The problem is, is that this is a system created by those of us "on top". But it doesn't make the system true or morally correct. If earthworms defined the system, then animals that were squiggly and slimy would be at the top of the chain, while those of us with ugly legs would be at the bottom.
    The other problem, is that in nature the lines between one group and the next is not always so clear. Is coral, and animal, more alive than cauliflower? Is a bivalve mollusk more conscious than a carrot? That little mudskipper fish that grew legs, when does he get to graduate to amphibian?
    A better representation of nature would be a circle. plants get eaten by deer, wolves eat deer, bugs and bacteria eat wolves, breaking them down into the soil that grows plants, the deer eat the plants, the wolves...well you get it.
    So, when it comes to what we choose to eat, it is all about drawing lines based on the chain of being. Some people eat birds and fish, but not mammals. some eat plants but not animals. Many of us who eat mammals would be repulsed by the idea of eating a primate. In early cannibal societies, they did not feel they were doing anything wrong, because they simply drew the line between their tribe and the next.
    So,if you choose to eat plants and not animals, you are deciding that the life of a carrot is less valuable than the life of a cow. This may be true, but we must make that choice with the awareness of this homo-sapiens-centric philosophy of the ancients.

    Remember, when you bake bread, you are exploiting the work and reproductive lives of millions of living cells of yeast. And then, to thank them for their work, we kill them in a 400F oven.

    And then, eating plants is not without its own ethical issues. For centuries, we have cleared forests to make room for crop production. Crop production requires machinery which is enviromentally devastating to mine and produce, and created plentiful carbon emissions to use. Much of the vegetable industry uses plastics for packaging. It all requires warehousing and shipping. There are greenhouse gasses emitted when the waste materials are composted. Then lets not forget the human costs. You might choose to buy fair trade coffee, but do you know anything about the wages and working conditions of the migrant workers picking your fruits and vegetables in southern California?

    Food issues are complex. The ethical debate is far more involved than the choice to eat meat or not to eat meat.

    So, to conclude my little rant: Vegetarians and vegans might be able to claim a moral high ground, but that high ground is not much higher than the field I stand in, and is definitely muddy.

  15. Well said Alex.

  16. Sheila,
    Thank you for the clarification about the bute. As for the question about whether any horses are raised for specifically for meat in North America I will have to do some research because I am getting conflicting information.

    Having said this, some horse lovers would say they would rather see horses sent to be humanely slaughtered than to be neglected and undernourished when they have outlived their usefulness.

    But where does the ethical issue lie? At very least, the moral choice is shared between the person who chooses to eat horsemeat and the horse owner who decides that their race horse or pet is no longer wanted.

    Some people use the argument that eating horse meat is wrong because we shouldn't eat our pets. This argument is disingenuous because a sensitive pet owner would not give up their cat or dog to a slaughterhouse once they were no longer benefitting from the pets companionship.

  17. Alex - I love your restaurant & I think my Dad eats at your place more than he does at his! I've been vegetarian since I was six years old, and the distinction that some people make about the animals that they will or will not eat still kind of blows me away.

    If you are only comfortable with eating some kinds of meat, that's fine, but your personal level of comfort doesn't mean you get to demand that everyone else conform to that.

    The reason that I love Bistro so much is that everything you guys do is so careful and extremely high quality. I grew up with horses, so does seeing them on the menu somewhere make me pause? Sure. As does seeing chicken & pork. I feel like at any other restaurant in the city I would probably balk, just because I have no idea what the methodology behind sourcing ingredients is. But seeing you work, seeing what you put into everything that goes into the restaurant... I know you must have done this extremely carefully, and I I feel like eating at your restaurant is an amazing way to support producers who are doing their business (no matter what kind of animals they're raising) the humane way.

    Just walking into your restaurant and seeing how you interact with customers and the quality of ingredients you use, I have no doubt that I can be confident that you source your food from producers who who care about their animals, who feed them well and make sure they get proper vet care and have a great place to live while they're alive.

    Frankly that's far more than most animal owners do. I certainly don't see barns full of 25+ year old hobby horses, for all the sentimentality around which kinds of animals are pets and which aren't, I doubt that many people who are fans of horses really hold onto them until the end, or think about where that leads their animals.

    I love that you've engaged in a debate with your clients over this, and I'm always going to be a client because of the attention to detail and care that you put into all things related to the amazing food & experiences that you put together for your guests.

    Even if, as a vegetarian, I'm sticking to the pastas and puy lentils :)

  18. Kyla,
    Thank you for your kind and supportive comments.
    If you every find yourself limited by the vegetarian choices on my menu, please feel free to ask me to whip up something for you. I am always grateful for the opportunity to be creative.
    Chef Alex

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  20. Here is a link to an Article in The Globe and Mail about Horsemeat. It answers some of the questions this discussion has raised.

    Check it out.

  21. Here is a link to the raging debate on the Q website. You can hear the debate, then read the comments.

  22. Top Chef Canada just used horsemeat on their show. Bold move!

  23. For the first time ever we have horsemeat on the menu, not just as a special. This time around it seems to have caused far less controversy. We are serving horse carpaccio with a bone marrow salad. We also have a really tasty horse bresaola that I made for our charcuterie boards.

  24. It's funny. We had a woman in the other night who objected to us serving horse meat but had no problem with eating foie gras. I guess it just depends on where you draw the lines.

  25. Did you watch how they (the horses) died on the undercover video of CHDC "Pasture to Plate"? The manner in which they are processed is not only cruel but highly criminal and unethical. Why would you want to be associated with such carnage? Shame on you.