Horse meat: how the scandal caused sales to soar

Date:23-11-2013 08:58:18 read:4

Horse meat: how the scandal caused sales to soar

After the wrong-labelling scandal and Princess Anne's latest pronouncement, the horse meat industry is enjoying a boom

Horse meat: 'What puts people off tends to be the thought, rather than the reality' Photo: ALAMY

Princess Anne's pronouncement that we should all consider eating horse meat is just the latest shot in the arm for an industry boosted by the wrong-labelling scandal.

Ever since the discovery of equine DNA in supposedly 100 per cent beef products, sales of horse meat have positively soared. “Prior to all the publicity, the amount of horse meat we sold was pretty insignificant, down in the bottom five per cent,” says Walter Murray, of Kezie Foods, in Berwickshire. “Now, out of some 1,000 different products we stock, it's up there in top 10 best sellers.

“No question about it, there's been a certain amount of British defiance involved in this phenomenon. What made people angry was not that horse meat was being sold, but that they were being deceived into believing it was something else.

“And instead of turning against the whole idea of horse meat, it made people curious to try it. Not only is horse meat low fat and tender, but we can trace its provenance precisely, and that is becoming increasingly important for consumers.

“The fact is, once people have tried horse meat, they find they overcome their misgivings. What puts people off tends to be the thought, rather than the reality.”

That's certainly been the experience of Martin and Suzie Cowley, who for the past 10 years have not only been making horse meat jerky (think dried biltong strips), but travelling the country, selling it at festivals, rock concerts and historical re-enactment events.

Far from making a secret of which animal their jerky is made of, they make a positive virtue of it, giving jokey names to each of their products.

All of their horse products go under the umbrella title My Brittle Pony (a play on the children's toy-and-TV-series My Little Pony). The different flavours include Black Beauty (made with dark beer, herbs and onions), Phwar Horse (hot chilli), Red Rum (Captains Morgan's and fresh ginger) and the self-explanatory Champion The Worcester s'orse. All the packets carry, at the bottom, the tongue-in-cheek announcement “Guaranteed 100 Per cent Beef-Free”.

“I started making the jerky for myself, but when I began sharing it out at various re-enactment events, I found that what would last me a week was gone in about two minutes,” recalls, Martin, at the firm's kitchens in Trealaw, South Wales.

“We'd always wanted to work for ourselves, so we re-mortgaged the house, and with the £1,500 left over, we invested in a couple of driers. Suzie gave up her job, and since then, it's been just the two of us, working together.”

Once they've taken delivery of the fresh meat, the Cowleys slice it thinly, marinade it in their flavour of choice, and leave it in the drier for 14 hours. One big advantage of making a dessicated product is that it has a shelf life of five years. Look on the back of one of their jerky packets, and the current Best By date is at some point in autumn 2018.

“Actually, we had a customer the other day, who found a packet of our jerky that was eight years old, at the back of their cupboard,” says Martin. “We sent it off to the laboratory, and the report came back that it was still perfectly edible, and showed no signs of deterioration.”

That said, the Cowleys never underestimate the initial level of apprehension felt by people who have never tasted horse before.

“When we're running a stall at a festival, we always give out free bits of horse jerky for people to try,” says Suzie. “The fact is, that horse meat doesn't really taste that different from any other meat; a bit gamier, perhaps, but when it's been dried and flavoured with a few spices, you wouldn't know.

“The main barrier to people eating horse meat, really, is sentimental. For some reason, people don't like the idea of eating an animal that maybe had a name, galloped around a field and jumped over a few fences. Whereas they will happily eat a cow.

“It's like a form of discrimination, really; there's no logic to it, at all.”

That said, the Cowleys have found that the horse meat scandal has helped boost their business, too. They recently launched a finance-raising initiative on the internet, through the funding website Kickstarter, and got £11,000 for new equipment; investors are rewarded with free products, discount vouchers, and, if they donate more than £300, they get a jerky named after them.

As well as selling to festival-goers in locations as far apart as Lincolnshire and Holland, the Cowleys have a growing number of corporate customers, including two breweries (Otley and Brecon) and one pub, the Grove Inn, in Huddersfield.

“We are very popular with the British Navy, or at least in the mess room of HMS Sunderland,” says Martin. “And we can also claim to be suppliers to the American Navy, in that we have one customer who's a sailor in the US Pacific Fleet.”

As well as producing jerky that will last for half a decade, the Cowleys have also researched its history and, in return for free or discounted festival pitches, put on 18th-century cookery demonstrations in fields and forests across the UK.

“The word 'jerky' actually comes from the Quechua word 'charqui', which means dried meat, in the Andes,” says Martin. “And it's only relatively recently that horse meat has fallen out of favour in this country.

“Probably everyone who's eaten a steak in France has eaten horse, though they might not know it. And it played a big part in the expedition undertaken by Lewis and Clark, the first men to travel from one side of the US to the other, at the beginning of the 19th century. In the course of their expedition, they ate 13 horses altogether.”

Not that the judges in the TV show Dragons Den allowed the Cowleys' enthusiasm to run away with them. When the couple appeared on the show in, more attention was paid to their appearance (Martin's spiky quiff and tattoos, Suzie's fluorescent red hair) than their business plan.

While emerging from the experience somewhat singed, the Cowleys refused to be blown off course, however. Instead, they have expanded their product range well beyond the 100 mark; they now make jerky from rabbit, venison, goat and buffalo, as well as producing Vegan and vegetarian alternatives, plus chewy, dried “fruit leathers” (grape and apple, pineapple and coconut).

Question is, though, are we Brits really ready for the return of horse meat?

“Whenever horse meat enters the public domain, you always get a spectrum of reaction,” says Walter Murray, of Kezie Meats. “Ten years ago, it was usually negative, but this time, it was positive. Of course, people are interested in how meat tastes, but they are even more interested in knowing where it's come from.”

Kezie Meats sells horsemeat mince at £3.53 for 500g, rump roast at £4.91 for 300g; Cowley Fine Foods sells 20g packs of horsemeat jerky for £3.50.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013