What’s all this about China and rat meat?
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security for the People’s Republic of China announced a three-month crackdown on food safety violators, some of it involving rat, fox and, mink flesh being sold as lamb meat. They reportedly uncovered 383 cases of meat-related crime and made 904 arrests of people suspected of selling 20,000 tons of fake, diseased, or counterfeit meat.
Is this the first time food fraud has been committed on this scale?
Not only is it not the first time, it’s not the first time this year. In mid-January, traces of horse DNA were discovered in the meat supply of Familjen Dafgard, a Swedish company that provides meat to the UK branches of Burger King, Nestlé, Tesco, IKEA, and Taco Bell, among others. It resulted in a massive recall (1,675 pounds of meatballs to IKEA alone) and a lot of bad press for all the companies involved.
But this won’t affect me, right? This is just overseas. The U.S. is still horse and rat meat-free.
Oh Jesus Christ! Are you serious? I’ve been eating rats?
Maybe not rats, but you’re definitely not always eating what you think you’re eating. This past January, a study by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention revealed that reports of food fraud were up a staggering 60 percent. (Food fraud, according to the USP, constitutes any “deliberate substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife bureau claims that 55 million pounds of “bushmeat” — meat from exotic African wildlife, including baboons, chimpanzees, and rats — are exported into the U.S. each year, the majority of it ending up in New York City, Miami, or Los Angeles. NPR’s This American Life featured a story in January in which a farmer “with some standing in the pork industry” claimed pig rectum was being sold in the U.S. as imitation calamari, although no conclusive evidence was found.
So what are you saying? I might be eating pig rectum or chimp chops without realizing it?
We’re saying that despite all the efforts made by the Food and Drug Administration, there’s only so much they can do. They only have the resources to inspect about 2.3 percent of all food imports. And increasingly foreign exporters have gotten cleverer in beating the rules. When China-made honey laced with antibiotics was first banned from U.S. supermarkets back in 2002, Chinese manufacturers found a way to launder their tainted products with middleman suppliers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Uruguay, and Mexico. “There are a near infinite number of bad guys, and there are a near infinite number of ways they can commit food fraud,” Dr. John Spink, Director of the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University, told us. “If it’s not horse meat, it’s rat meat. And if it’s not rat meat, it’s something we don’t know about yet. They’re going to find ways around the system.” In other words, every time you eat something that you didn’t personally grow or kill and then cook yourself, you can’t be 100-percent sure.
Okay, now I’m fucking paranoid. Should I just stop eating meat entirely?
Dr. Ian Lipkin, a microbiologist and virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told us it might not be the worst idea to take some personal responsibility for what you’re putting in your mouth. “Any discriminating consumer with access to rudimentary molecular biology equipment can determine the identity of his or her mystery meat,” he says. “I expect more people will do so as stories like [the China food scandal] circulate.” An even better idea might be to trust that food companies, at least here in the U.S., are as worried about fraud as you are. “Most times corporations seek less regulation and less oversight,” says Dr. Spink. “But not in this case. Food companies want the most robust and effective regulations possible.”
Why? Wouldn’t it hurt business if they found baboon meat in Big Macs?
Exactly! You hit the nail on the head.
They found baboon meat in Big Macs?!
No, no, no, calm down. We meant as a hypothetical example. Public perception is everything. Take the recent IKEA horse-meat scandal. When meatballs sold by the furniture retailer in Europe were found to contain up to 10 percent of undeclared horse meat, they pulled supplies from over 20 different countries, but not the U.S. (they use a different meat supplier). But U.S. stores faced the same public-relations nightmare. The company was mocked by everyone from Mad magazine (“Ikea Swedish Horse-Meatball Instructions”) to the New York Times (“You should perhaps think twice before buying meatballs from a furniture purveyor, unless those meatballs are humongous and nonperishable, and double as ottomans.”) The U.S. branch of IKEA released a public statement to “correct some misinformation,” assuring customers that their meatballs remained horse-free. “Even if a different branch in a different country isn’t directly involved, a case of food fraud can be a brand killer,” says Dr. Spink. “Think about the food chains you visit in the U.S. If any of them, in any city or country, served a rat, would you ever go to that chain again?”
If I accidentally eat an animal I didn’t intend to eat, what are the health risks?
That depends on where it came from. In a study published by online journal PLOS ONE in January of 2012, illegally imported bushmeat confiscated at New York’s JFK airport (among other major city airports) over the previous five years was found to be riddled with diseases, like simian retroviruses and herpesviruses. But if the meat was packaged in a facility with strict testing protocols, you’re unlikely to get something that’s been contaminated. If horse or rat meat does slip through, at least it’ll be quality horse or rat meat. “If I’m going down to the Lower East Side and catching a rat in the street, who knows what it’s been exposed to,” Steven A. Shaw, a New York-based food critic and author of the book Asian Dining Rules, told us. “But dogs or rats that are farmed for food, like they do in parts of China — they have an agricultural production process that’s as safe as anything in our country.”
If your objection to eating rat or horse meat is that you didn’t intend to eat rat or horse meat, Shaw says that’s a perfectly reasonable complaint. “But if your objection is, ‘Eww, it’s icky to eat a rat,’ I don’t think you can make a compelling moral argument for that. Rabbits are just as disgusting as rats. In fact, they’re almost exactly the same animal, yet people eat tons of rabbit but draw the line at rat.”
What does rat taste like?
You really want to know?
[Long pause.] I’m not sure. Do I? Is hearing about it going to make me sick?
Probably not. Brooklyn artist Laura Ginn hosted a $100-per-head rat dinner at New York’s Allegra LaViola Gallery last July, part of an exhibit called Tomorrow We Will Feast Again on What We Catch. Ginn, who was a vegetarian for 16 years prior to hosting the dinner, told us that rat meat “has a gamey flavor.” The most edible part comes from the rat’s stomach, and “it gets crispy when you cook it; it’s actually quite tasty.” Was it delicious enough that she’d eat rat again? “I wouldn’t make it for Sunday dinner,” she laughs. “But if somebody offered it to me, sure, I’d try it.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)