Do You Really Know What's in That Sausage?

CC BY 2.0. oatsy

If you bought it in a Canadian supermarket, there's a 20 percent chance it's got strange meat in it.

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Year of the Flood, she describes a shady burger chain called Secret Burger, where the ingredients for meat patties come from unknown and dubious sources. Diners may encounter some cat fur, an odd chunk of gristle, or, yuckiest of all, a fingernail. The underlying assumption is that human flesh occasionally appears in these burgers, as bodies tend to disappear in the vicinity of the fast food chains.

While the idea is appalling, it’s not so far from the truth as most people would like to believe. As food production becomes ever more industrialized and mechanized, and products are further removed from their origins and eaters, one could argue that we’re already eating Secret Burgers of a sort.

This is evident from tests conducted by the University of Guelph, results published last week. The University was commissioned by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to see what’s actually in 100 supermarket sausages that claim to contain a single kind of meat, either beef, pork, chicken, or turkey. Researchers tested for those four meats, as well as horse, and found that 20 percent contained meat other than what they were supposed to have. The Star reports:

“Seven of 27 beef sausages examined in the study contained pork. One of 38 supposedly pure pork sausages contained horse meat. Of 20 chicken sausages, four also contained turkey and one also had beef. Five of the 15 turkey sausages studied contained no turkey at all — they were entirely chicken.”

The amounts of foreign meat were significant, in the 1 to 5 percent range, which means it’s more than just somebody forgetting to clean a meat grinder blade. Anything more than 1 percent, according to Robert Hanner, lead author of the study, indicates a “breakdown in food processing or intentional food fraud.”

Apparently CFIA was not surprised by the results. The agency had commissioned the study because of the 2013 horse meat scandal in Europe and said that “international intelligence” makes it known that this kind of mislabelling fraud is common. In fact, this 20 percent failure rate is much better than in Europe, where scientists have found up to 70 percent of samples to contain unlabeled ingredients.

It’s still disturbing. While I do believe that anyone who eats meat should be open to eating animals of all kinds (yes, that includes horses and dogs and cats and rats and you name it), and I don’t elevate horses above pigs or turkeys when it comes to their eligibility for consumption, I do not like the idea of being purposefully deceived. This is even more serious when it contravenes religious dietary laws or could trigger allergic reactions.

All of this underscores the importance of sourcing food from known places. The shorter the journey from farm to table, the more comfortable a diner can be, trusting that food contains what it’s supposed to contain.