Agsight: Knowing our food system

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My family and I stopped at Starbucks® for some coffee during a recent vacation trip.  While getting into line we chanced upon an ongoing conversation between the clerk and the gentleman in front of us; he was inquiring about the dessert offerings on the counter and their respective ingredients. 

He was informed they contained marshmallows.    As such, the young clerk pointed out they were inappropriate to eat:  “They’re not vegetarian.  I wouldn’t eat them.”  Needless to say, my interest was piqued by this interaction and instinctively I jumped into the fray.  (I just couldn’t help myself.) Tongue-in-cheek, I asked, “Vegetarian?  Or don’t you mean vegan?” 

The clerk correctly explained, albeit with contempt, that marshmallows were not appropriate for vegetarians because they contained gelatin.  However, the explanation should have ended there.   She proceeded to detail that gelatin is manufactured from the tissue of animals (also correct).  But her illustration is what makes all of this interesting and especially revealing:   “Gelatin is made from animal products – like horses hooves.”   

Our young vegetarian clerk is misguided.  One, gelatin is not derived from hooves (it’s produced from collagen, NOT keratin).   Two, U.S. horse slaughter ended with closure of the last operational facility in 2007 (the ensuing outcome of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act).  And since gelatin is a by-product, the likelihood the marshmallow bars containing horse-derived gelatin is negligible.  Great story – if only it were true; the clerk’s illustration is urban legend just being robotically repeated.     

Amidst the complexity and general lack of knowledge about our food system, establishing oneself as an expert usually goes uncontested; the general public often accepts such confident proclamations  as fact (like gelatin being derived from horses hooves).  The clerk’s pretentious bravado reminded me of last year’s Wall Street Journal book review (Paul Beston) of The Authenticity Hoax (Andrew Potter):     

For Andrew Potter, the ever-narrowing search for just the right kind of food has less to do with saving the environment or pursuing a healthy lifestyle than with achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more "authentic" self. Food is only one part of that broader self-definition. In "The Authenticity Hoax," Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game.  Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is "a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it." By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before….The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

Food legalism, meaningful or not, allows one to assert some type of social or moral ascendency.  But the horse-hoof illustration is a false premise.  The clerk’s been duped and now unknowingly duping others.  See, the pressing matter of the day, the serious business, is establishment and maintenance of her food identity:  “Vegetarian I AM.”  But in her zealous pursuit to be authentic, she’s fallen victim to the very trap she’s trying to avoid. 

That’s not unusual.   Survey data (Vegetarian Times, 2008) reveals that 42% of vegetarians are between the ages of 18 and 34.   Fast forward ten years:  what might happen when the young activist begins to understand the food system in a more meaningful way?  For example, perhaps she becomes enlightened about the unintended consequences of banning horse slaughter in the United States and the derived suffering it’s caused for many horses.      

One of two outcomes will occur.   She either develops some serious cognitive dissonance OR becomes disillusioned and begins to eat meat again.  The latter is more likely.  About three-percent of the population claims vegetarianism; but more importantly, only 57% of those have respondents have remained so for ten years or more.  Vegetarians – they come and they go.

My interjection wasn’t welcomed.  After all, she possessed expert status – a proud vegetarian.  And given the ready explanation and ensuing patronizing tone, it was readily apparent this would unnecessarily escalate into something unpleasant.   There’d be no joking or bantering about meat-filled diets (or the avoidance thereof).  There was no need to irritate the clerk any further or enter a contest of one-upmanship.  

There’ll likely come a time, though, when avoiding marshmallows, and winning further converts, no longer holds much meaning for our young friend.  And so my better judgment finally kicked in…I walked away leaving my wife and daughter to settle our coffee transaction.      

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Maryland  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:36 PM

Horses are not part of the food system in ANY way in the United States. They are not raised for meat, they're not killed for human consumption in the US, and horsemeat is not a normal part of the American diet. By insisting they should be sold for meat, you drag their value down to the mere cents-per-pound meat price. The responsible owners & breeders of horses don't need or want slaughter. We can take care of our own. What troubles me the most is that slaughter is paying the less responsible people to overbreed, overwork, and generally dump their animals. They're being rewarded for treating their mounts as disposable. And to the horse community this is outrageous. When California passed a state-wide ban critics waited for the increase in "suffering" they expected -- and they NEVER found it. There was no documented increase in abuse, neglect, or abandonment in the years following the ban. However, an interesting thing happened: horse THEFT dropped by 1/3rd. I would correct some of your misconceptions about vegetarians, but a debate of vegetarians (good or bad) really has no place in a horse article. In the general [meat-eating] public, the vast majority of Americans do not see horses as a "meat". Horse is no more a meat than dogs, cats, or human flesh.

Calgary Alberta Canada  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:43 PM

Well said!

Linda Juergens    
INDIANA  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:46 PM

You cant eat horses till you condone eating PEOPLE.

Heather Clemenceau    
Aurora, Ontario  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:55 PM

Some vegetarians also avoid products that may use animal ingredients not included in their labels or which use animal products in their manufacturing; for example, sugars that are whitened with bone char, cheeses that use animal rennet (enzymes from animal stomach lining), gelatin (derived from the collagen inside animals' skin, bones and connective tissue). So you're incorrect in that one has to be a vegan in order to abstain from gelatin. But I'm sure both people appreciated you eavesdropping on their convo. And by the way - "unintended consequences of banning horse slaughter in the United States and the derived suffering it’s caused for many horses. " What unintended consequences? Are you buying into the belief that horses are wandering the streets because horse slaughter is no longer conducted in the US? Guess what - you still have horse slaughter available to you and horses and still be abused and abandoned. Horses suffer immensely in long journeys to slaughterhouses without food or water, in trucks that are not tall enough for them. Stallions eyes are often gouged out to "manage" their behaviour around mares, who are often sold for slaughter while their foals are left behind as some sort of "byproduct." Horse slaughter just provides a convenient dumping group to irresponsible breeders who need an "out" while they are trying to produce that "one perfect horse." Only irresponsible breeders think it’s okay to slaughter horses, babies and pregnant mares. One of the nice things about civilization is it allows us to make ethical choices. Horse slaughter, whether done in the US, Canada, or Mexico is unethical.

Santa Cruz, CA  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:59 PM

Horses Are Companion Animals - Not "Just" Livestock!!! The definition of a companion animal, according to the ASPCA is: "domesticated or domestic-bred animals whose physical, emotional, behavioral and social needs can be readily met as companions in the home, or in close daily relationship with humans". In essence, they are animals who are kept for the purpose of companionship." Would you eat your dog, cat or a member of your family?

Judy DeCarlo    
Los Angeles  |  June, 15, 2011 at 09:16 PM

It is ironic that the writer refers to the patronizing tone of the Starbucks employee, considering the patronizing tone of this article. While horses hooves may not appear in gelatin, the boiled skin, bones and tendons of other animals do, making it unsuitable for vegetarians anyway. The inclusion of sugar and other sweeteners makes them an unhealthy candy for anyone. The clerk was onto something, if mistaken in one detail. It is misleading to say that we don't have horse slaughter in this country, since killer-buyers now simply ship horses across our borders to be brutally killed for profit. This is just a technicality, as the business of buying, selling and committing these animals to a gruesome death does occur here. The writer's speculation about what path the clerk will follow in the future is just that--speculation. I know many people who long ago stopped eating animal products in response to the cruelty involved, and later appreciated the health benefits. Many of them, like me, maintain the same values today, over 25 years later. It sounds like the writer is as interested in defending and legitimizing his food choices as the vegetarians ( and the dreded vegans) he looks down upon and psychoanalyzes. The concept that there is a "food system' of which non-carnivores are ignorant is a fiction. The notion that banning horse slaughter has caused horses to suffer is an industry talking point which ignores the fact that slaughter is a brutal and terrifying way to be killed. If he has concern about horses, and also thinks they need to die, how about a painless injection? Oh, wait--then the horse "owner" doesn't get paid, but has to pay a vet instead. That doesn't fit well into his "food system". Having slaughter as a dumping ground promotes irresponsible breeding of domestic horses. This whole article is a smug and condescending look at a topic with which the writer is woefully unfamiliar, an attempt to justify the writer's own consumption of abused corpses.

South US  |  June, 16, 2011 at 09:07 AM

Well said Heather and Judy. I could not have said it better.

CJ Oakwood    
Illinoia  |  June, 16, 2011 at 07:30 AM

These are some of the dumbest comments I have heard.. Horse Meat is a food as is Dog in parts of the world. Horse Meat is a very nutritious product. Hell we have Asian families in the USA weating dog, and others eating horse meat! Some of you bunny huggers need to get a life! At leastwe know the moron liberal democrats read a rag like the Drovers!

Lincoln  |  June, 16, 2011 at 11:12 AM

I just have to say that I think you all missed the point of the article. It wasn't talking about horse slaughter (right or wrong) or about being vegetarian (right or wrong). It was talking about the lack of knowledge our population has about where our food comes from and the fact that being vegetarian or an animal activist is more about the image than the actual value those people have as a whole. There are some really great people out there that have done the research and chosen to eat meat or not or support horse slaughter or not, but they did the RESEARCH! They didn't just believe something they heard once. This is the misconception and the point this article was trying to get across. But I do have a question for the anti-horse slaughter people... So when your horse no longer can be ridden or is suffering, what do you do with it? In Nebraska it is illegal to bury a horse and expensive to keep feeding it so, what comes next? Putting done a horse isn't like putting down a dog, their size is a limitation and challenge.

KS  |  June, 16, 2011 at 11:18 AM

Those who truly care for the welfare of the horse industry as a whole- not just those who are financially secure enough to provide adequate care for their own horses- should recognize the rapid growth of abandoned horses and decrease in quality of life since 2007. World-renowned animal welfare expert, Temple Grandin, commented on the implications of that decision saying, "When they shut down those plants, I said we've got to avoid alternatives worse than slaughter. But we have not, and all my worse nightmares have come true." Read more:,8599,1809950,00.html

Winfield, IL  |  June, 16, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Amy, Temple also said at the Summit of the Horse in January, that unless slaughterhouses are under 24/7 surveillance horse slaughter could never be humane. You will find that many who support anti-slaughter do it because they feel it is cruel and inhumane. So if Temple says it can't be made humane then it shouldn't be an option at all. And if you DO truly care about the welfare of your horse, you will call the vet to put it down humanely instead of selling it for a few dollars. Horse slaughter is all about the money not the welfare of the horse. When my horse became sick, he was put down by the vet and I had him cremated because I didn't have a place to bury him. Of course it was expensive but for ME and out of respect of my dear friend, it was what I needed to do. Many of my other horse owning friends had their horses put down by the vet and then called the renderer. That is what we need more of renderers not horse slaughter plants. Now that is humane. And A Million Horses is a pro-slaughter group so watch their propaganda.

Ann M. Marini, Ph.D., M.D.    
Maryland  |  June, 16, 2011 at 08:40 PM

Oakwood: Horses are NOT raised for food in the United States. American horses are given drugs that are BANNED in all food-producing animals, including horses. BANNED drugs include phenylbutazone which is commonly known as bute. Our study followed 18 American Thoroughbred horses bought for slaughter. All 18 horses were given the BANNED drug bute. Bute is a LIFETIME ban. This means that any horse given even one dose of bute is INELIGIBLE for the slaughter pipeline. American horses given banned drugs like bute are NOT removed from the slaughter pipeline. Bute causes bone marrow depression in humans and is a CARCINOGEN. This means the drug causes cancer. The United States has NO RIGHT peddling contaminated horse meat for other HUMANS to eat!

Jan Schultz    
California  |  June, 22, 2011 at 06:33 PM

You might all want to read and consider the GAO report issued today on effects of closing of horse slaughter plants in the US. They have recommended that USDA enforce rules better, that transport be made more humane, that handling be humane or that Congress permanently ban horse slaughter. 75% of Americans oppose slaugther. WHY are STILL talking about it? As for this article, what makes this writer so smug that horse products are not in the marshmallow? I am sure he has heard of global trade?

Gwen Lebec    
California  |  June, 19, 2011 at 12:41 PM

Pot - meet Kettle. The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act has never been passed by Congress, although it has remained pending for a number of years. While critiquing the lack of knowledge of the general public, it might be good to make sure you actually know what you are talking about yourself.

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