PARIS/LONDON – “A good roast or a really nice steak — fabulous! Burgers are good, too, but the way I really like it is raw, minced and served with a garlicky vinaigrette!”
Luc Friedrich is a member of a dwindling but dedicated band of horse-meat lovers, and it seems the current food fraud scandal engulfing much of Europe is not going to change a habit they see as a gastronomic, not a guilty, secret.
“I don’t eat it often, maybe six times a year,” says Friedrich, a wine merchant in Croissy-sur-Seine, a village near Paris. “But that is mainly because it’s difficult to find. Not so long ago there was a horse butcher in every neighborhood of Paris, but there were problems in the 1980s with imports from Eastern Europe, and that killed the industry. Now people have to travel to find a good butcher, so they’ve lost the habit.”
Although the French are often held up as the most enthusiastic consumers of horse meat in Europe, industry figures indicate it now accounts for just 0.4 percent of overall meat consumption in the country. Just under 1 in 5 households eat the meat once a year or more.
Along the street from Friedrich’s wine shop, market trader Ronan Marache is doing a steady trade in lean cuts of horse meat that his primarily middle-aged or elderly customers will take home to grill or chop up, marinate and then simmer gently for a few hours to create a hearty “daube de cheval” (horse stew).
There are not many takers, however, for the horse’s head in parsley, equine tripe sausages or even the finely-sliced smoked horse that resembles well-aged Parma ham.
As a passing English tourist emits a little shudder at the sight of his produce, Marache admits business has taken a little hit in the wake of the revelation that horse meat from Romanian abattoirs has found its way into frozen beef products being sold in Britain, France and Sweden.
Although fresh meat traders like him are operating at a different end of the market to industrial producers of frozen ready meals, the scandal has highlighted problems with the traceability of what ends up on tables across Europe.
On Saturday, an intermediary firm, Draap Trading, based in Cyprus, was identified as playing a pivotal role in shipping horse meat across Europe.
Draap has confirmed it bought horse meat from two Romanian abattoirs. The company sold the meat to French food processors such as Spanghero, which supplied another French company, Comigel, which turned it into frozen meals.
Draap insists the meat it sold into France was labeled as horse. Spanghero says it was labeled as beef.
Draap’s sole director is an anonymous corporate services company called Guardstand. A 2011 joint report by the International Peace Information Service and TransArms, an organization that researches arms shipments, produced evidence that Guardstand also owned a share in a business called Ilex Ventures.
Documents filed in a New York court by U.S. prosecutors allege that in 2007, Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout and an associate transferred almost $750,000 to Ilex for the purchase of aircraft to fly arms and ammunition around Africa’s trouble spots in breach of embargoes. The prosecutors said Ilex was owned and controlled by Bout, who last April was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Suggestions of criminal involvement in what appears to be orchestrated fraud, have done no favors to a sector struggling against spreading cultural aversion to the very idea of eating horses. “There have been a lot of questions about the origin of the meat,” Marache said. “All ours comes from Ireland. I tell the customers that, and they seem happy enough.”
Marache’s boss, Daniel Mazure, runs four market stalls in the prosperous western suburbs of Paris. He knows all about the long-term decline of a trade his family has been involved in for three generations. But he is confident enough about the future to be on the point of expanding his network and he does not see his customers turning away.
“We deal with people who like eating horse. They know it is tasty and they know it is good for them,” he said. “Many of them eat it because their parents eat it, and they’ve introduced their children to it.”
Mazure estimates that the scandal over mad cow disease in the 1990s, which resulted in dozens of human deaths and highlighted serious problems with the large-scale production of beef, gave horse-meat sales a boost of around 20 percent. Once the beef industry was seen to have addressed its problems, that ended up as a retained gain of around 5 percent, he says.
With his horse sirloin steaks going for around €21 ($28) per kilogram and fillet attracting nearly €40 ($64) per kilogram, just under the price of premium beef, Mazure knows customers have to trust the quality of what they are eating if his trade is to survive.
“There is no obligation for traceability with horse meat, but I can tell you where every carcass I sell comes from, what abattoir it was slaughtered in, whether it was male or female and when and where it was moved,” he said. “The people we sell to are not looking to save money. They’re looking for a quality product that gives them pleasure. I don’t think that will change because of what’s happening now.”