Thursday, May 19, 2011

Anatomy Of A Horse Meat Scandal: Top Chef Canada Episode 6

What a week for scandals! We can hardly keep up with all the action and the Top Chef Canada horse meat story. Now, Gordon Ramsay, never one to be outdone in the media, has to get in on the act. The Scottish Chef obviously wanted to prove he was more badass than a-bunch-of equine cooking Canucks and their Flipper Pie. Ramsay's response, eat a Cobra's still-beating heartEat your heart out cocky Chris Kanka - oops. In case we have any horse loving readers please take comfort in the fact that in 2007, PETA dumped a truck load of manure in the entrance at one of Ramsay's restaurants because he publicly extolled the benefits of eating horse meat.
In all seriousness, the French Feast episode of Top Chef (episode 6) has given us a lot to think and write about. Please note we have been following this story closely and understand that this is a very complex issue so please excuse some of the generalizations we might use in discussing this story. If we piss you off remember the Ramsay manure story we just told you. Also our little brown pet rabbit, Jazz in our avatar, was rescued by the SPCA in a raid of an illegal meat farm with hideous conditions. During the Top Chef horse meat scandal we did not notice any objections to the fact that rabbit meat was also used in the episode. Horses got the headlines, sorry Gordon Ramsay, with some objections to the use of foie gras and seal meat (episode 1). The vegans of course object to the killing of all animals so at least somebody was looking out for us bunnies but this is another complex story onto itself. 
As bloggers we love to follow news stories and watch them unfold. In this case we felt like we had front row seats. Not to dismiss the horse meat debate but we think that the story is part of a much larger story about the food that we eat. It seems that people are more concerned with ethics surrounding their food, where is comes from and how it is produced. Despite all the scandal the French Feast episode of Top Chef Canada raised important issues surrounding farming regulation and practices in the food production industry.
We think it is safe to say that the French Feast episode of Top Chef Canada was the most controversial episode of Top Chef ever, including the U.S. series. When was the last time you saw a cooking show or program explain the provenance of the ingredients being used prior-to each segments? Cutting-edge Food Television if you ask us. The messages were similar to the "this show contains nudity, explicit language...viewer discretion is advised," warning that is so familiar. Given people's reaction to the use of horse meat we think the show could have said something like "warning this show contains food pornography..." Think about this for a moment, we read ingredient labels on the food products we consume so why not our food television? Chefs are always talking about their produce, sustainable farming, so why not put their money where their mouth is? We get to see what the Chefs produce with their dishes but what about the waste after your fav cooking show?
We were surprised when we saw the Top Chef Canada preview and that the upcoming episode was to use horse meat. We know people eat horse meat because it is a regular fixture at Montreal grocery stores. We had never given the meat much thought until now. We have never tried horse meat despite our epicurean curiosity. The reason being was that we could just not bring ourselves to eat a horse. The fact our reaction to the Top Chef preview was, oh-oh here comes trouble... we find it extremely hard to believe that this did not cross the Producer's minds. The show did get a lot attention as a result of the scandal but we doubt that the President’s Choice people are thrilled with the calls to boycott their product for being a show sponsor. We dismissed our initial fears about negative reaction to  the horse meat because Todd Perrin’s seal flipper, served up in episode 1, seemed to go under the radar. We were worried for Chef Perrin after episode 1 because we like the guy. All we could think about was Governor General Michaëlle Jean and the scandal that ensued when she ate seal meat. We find the public outcry over horse meat but not seal meat strange in this case only because it was such a big deal in the past. We guess horse beats seal in this competition. 

On Wednesday afternoon (May 11, 2011) following Monday’s preview of the horse meat episode we noticed an unusually high number of comments on the Top Chef Canada Facebook pageLooking at the comments we saw that people were deeply upset about the use of horse meat in the upcoming episode of Top Chef. We also noticed the emergence of a Boycott Top Chef - Protect the Horses Facebook page. We recommend reading the Facebook page if you are looking for more information because there are several links to detailed articles on the subject. People object to the killing of horses because of the terrible conditions found in the slaughterhouses but also unethical practices found in the industry. Medications given to horses can be be harmful to humans who consume the meat. We think that most of these grievances could be applied to several food products that we normally consume. People also questioned the killing of these magnificent animals and asked if Top Chef would be serving cat or dog in an upcoming episode. We posted about this on our blog, twitter and Facebook and noticed immediate traffic on our site. The Food Network responded on their Facebook page in the late afternoon explaining that part of their mandate is to teach people about different food cultures and that it was not their intention to offend people. Global news quickly followed with a story on the subject. In case you did not know, Global news is owned by Shaw media that, you guessed it, produces Top Chef Canada. 
The next morning we saw that ousted competitor Chef Rebekah Pearse blogged her thoughts on horse meat. We have never tasted, at least to our knowledge, any products made with horse, but we keeping thinking about Pearse’s description of the fried potato because it has left a taste in our mouth. Chef Pearse offers some thoughtful insights into the debate especially from a competitor's perspective saying ,“I would have struggled with what to do.” During the day Food Republic picked up the story. The Huffington Post, was soon on the story. On May 13, 2011, Zagat chose the Food Network’s response as their quote of the day thus proving the story was everywhere.
"Please be assured it is not our [Food Network] intention to offend our viewers. The challenge in this episode involves having the competitors create a truly authentic, traditional French menu. One of the most traditional French foods is horse meat" 
We noticed that the Food Network pulled the online trailer for the upcoming episode. While watching the Food Network on Saturday (May 14) morning we saw a new preview for Top Chef Canada with Chuck Hughes and a poutine challenge. We liked the way Hughes dove into the moose meat and once-again Todd Perrin is the only Chef who is really cooking with Canadian style or more specifically Newfoundland. The full episode of the show has yet to appear on the Top Chef website. 

During the live blogging sessions of episode 6 the usual gang of suspects were not present. We are talking about all three Top Chef judges and some cameos by the Cheftestants. The blogging focussed mainly on the horse meat debate with an occasional official comment from a Food Network avatar. The Food Network did not make any poignant comments just things like Darryl is cursing lol. They even skipped the usual prize giveaways, talk about really bad damage control.
The French Feast episode of Top Chef Canada made us think about the food industry and it's ethics. This debate was about the the foods we eat and where it comes from. Remember Maple Leaf Meats? In watching this news story unfold we noticed a posting on the President’s Choice Facebook page from May 3, 2011. “Loblaw takes leadership on important issues, including food sustainability, health and wellness.” This was a quotation from their own 2010 Corporate Responsibility report. Basically the company is quoting it's own text but this had us thinking on where the grocer could improve in-light-of the issues raised in this debate that are obviously important to people. Whole Foods in the United Sates, there are some Canadian locations, uses a cruelty rating system on it's meat that details how the food was raised. They have also developed a  sustainability system for their seafood. People want to now where their food is coming from and how it was produced.

If the Food Network can learn anything from this experience it is that people do not only care about cooking shows. Food politics, ethics and issues are obviously very important to people. These issues and debates attract media and public attention so how about adding this to your programming? Even if these shows are colossal failures it is at least a socially responsible move.

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