Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vince Garreffa, Animal Rights Activist?

Surely a butcher can't be an animal rights activist? I wouldn't think so, but in this interview with FoodDesigner Linda Monique from Melbourne, "Celebrity Butcher" Vince Garreffa is certainly trying to come across as someone who is deeply concerned about horse welfare.

I'm certainly left dizzy by the mishmash of ideas he seems to be putting forward. Please watch this, and tell me... is he really claiming that he's going to save thoroughbreds from extinction by eating them? Or stop brumbies being shot from helicopters by selling the meat of domesticated horses in his shop?

I agree that stricter regulations are required, but I disagree on so many other points, many of which he's brought in randomly, seemingly to muddy the waters... My detailed response is below the video.

So to respond to a few of the key points he makes (skipping over some of the smaller stuff, because this post is already too long...):

Vince Garreffa - "...this meat is produced, not to West Australian standards, but it's produced to Australian standards, ok? In a proper abattoir that does my beef, my lamb, my pork. So for the first time ever we've got horse meat that is produced to the highest standards in this country made available to its citizens."
To start off with, I don't know how you can talk about using "the highest standards" when there are no standards. Horse meat has only just been made legal for Aussies to eat, and as such, any food safety standards must have only just been written. If you're referring to the export standards, then they're not very high standards at all. The European Union, who have been consuming horse meat for a very long time, have just brought in new standards due to health concerns. The EU now require that horses are individually tracked, with a complete veterinary history following each horse throughout its life. This is something that definitely does not happen in Australia. So it would appear that "the highest standards" fall short of the EU's standards, which begs the question: if Australian horse meat isn't good enough for the EU, why is it suddenly good enough for Australians?

VG - "We would rather have all these wild horses that have been distributed throughout this country, shot from a helicopter, drop dead on the ground and rot, than kill them humanely. The moment a meat becomes worthy of human consumption everybody wants to protect it."
Who would rather that? I doubt very much you could find one sane person who would admit to preferring inhumane over humane. That is, assuming that you can find a humane slaughter technique for horses.

Approximately 20% of the horses slaughtered for export are wild horses, known in Australia as brumbies. According to the governments in charge of brumby culls from helicopters, these culls are only carried out when the horses cannot be captured, due to reasons such as difficult terrain or isolation. If you want to find out more, please see the websites of the various brumby welfare and rescue groups on the contact page.

Yes, there are huge problems with brumby management in Australia, but I fail to see how a butcher selling horse meat derived from domesticated horses is really going to be a step forward for them. I do appreciate the mention though, as more people need to be aware of how unsustainable current brumby management strategies are.

VG - "So I'm thinking what I've created, is a conscience, of making sure we discuss this issue, that we start humanely treating... It costs about $500 to bury a horse. In England they won't allow you to bury a horse without a license, because when you bury a 500 kilo horse you can contaminate the water table. And so all of a sudden people are hiding horses, by shooting them illegally, and burying them in lots of places. Ok? And I'm saying here we are that we could say, "hey stop mistreating 'em, start looking after them, treat them well, they're a valuable commodity.""

This is a muddled line of thought indeed, so I have transcribed it in full... Firstly, while yes, you have brought horse welfare to national, mainstream media attention, something that no horse welfare or rescue group has been able to do, you haven't "created... a conscience". What you have done is increase awareness. Unfortunately your method of doing so leaves a lot to be desired, effective as it may be.

Grandiose claims aside... why is the English situation relevant? Yes, it is expensive to get a horse buried or cremated, but people aren't "hiding horses" or "shooting them illegally" in Australia. Last time I looked, Australia was a whole lot bigger than England, with a considerably smaller population. Obfuscation, anyone?

Debates about whether you can really call burying a dead horse "mistreating" it, and consuming it "respecting" it, I shall leave well alone.

VG - "...everyone will talk to you about the fact that to save old breeds of anything, pork is a classic case, all the old breeds of pork, all the old breeds of beef, all the old breeds of anything, have been saved only when they're eaten, because when they're eaten it keeps them safe... from, from extinction!"
Wow, "old breeds of anything"? Better tell the Rare Breeds Network at once! Those dog breeders will be thrilled!

I think you'll find that you've just listed rare breeds of pork and beef. Sure, they may have been saved by people wanting to eat them, but that's the reason they were selectively bred in the first place. Horses are quite different, and I think you'll find that thoroughbreds are in no danger of extinction. Quite the opposite in fact. Which we'll get to in a moment.

Anyone breeding a rare breed of horse in Australia, is not doing so in order for people to eat them. I'm sure they would be quite horrified at such a suggestion.

VG - "So I think it's been quite an unbelievable little "ride" that's happened the last few weeks, and the protesters have hurt quite a few restaurants, but there's no way in the world I can change... the business that I'm in, and I'm only doing what is legal."
Yes, by getting the law changed, so that you not only have legalised a new meat, but have a monopoly on its sale. To claim you couldn't have changed that, maybe by not doing it in the first place, is a bit far fetched.

Any business that gets involved with controversial issues that people feel strongly about can't really claim to be all that surprised when people share their strong opinions. To my knowledge, there has been one protest at a Melbourne restaurant, which has since made it clear that it will not serve horse again. Other than that I only know of people contacting restaurants by email and other means, to let them know of their displeasure, to outline their concerns, and state their unwillingness to dine there ever again if horse meat is put on the menu. Surely it is standard practice for restaurants to adjust their menu in response to whether their customers like it or not? This is an unusual case, sure, but the owners of these restaurants can't pretend they didn't know that putting horse meat on the menu would be controversial.

And to be honest, the horse puns aren't helping...

VG - "I feel for people that find it hard to seperate the pet, and the meat, because there's no way in the world that there isn't probably ten thousand young kids out there have got pet lambs on farms, and they know that lambs go and get slaughtered, but they don't want their pet going to get slaughtered, and that's fine! I'm not out looking for people's pets. All I'm out there looking for is clean horses, without drugs, that are destined for the knackeries, that I can agist for a few months, get the all clear from the health department, fatten them up, and turn them into a commodity that deserves respect. Instead of them rotting on the ground somewhere, or being used by dog and cat food."
I hope you're looking very thoroughly indeed for these "clean horses". Does the health department blood test them? There's no system for tracking drugs given to horses in Australia, and horses "destined for the knackeries" are hardly going to have thorough veterinary records kept on them.

Are you simply taking the previous owner's word for it that they're clean? If the person you're buying them from didn't breed the horses, then they can't say for sure, as they'd have no idea what the horse may have been given prior to them owning it. If a horse is from a large breeding operation, how confident is the owner that none of the staff looking after the horses gave the horse anything? When giving drugs to horses, people tend to consider things such as the horse's health and whether it will be tested for drugs at the races or other competitions. There's no way that people would have been looking after these horses with slaughter for human consumption in mind, because it was only made legal in WA a month ago.

With no government regulation in place to track horses' identities, let alone their veterinary records, risks to human health can not be ruled out.

I guess now we see why the horse meat in your shop is considerably more expensive than the price it gets for export. Agisting and fattening up the horses yourself can't be cheap.

VG - "...all the best trainers in this country will tell you that they need to close a blind eye to what's going on, because they need for their excess horses to be gotten rid of somehow. It has been known, it has been known, that great champions that nobody wants anymore, when they no longer race, have finished up at knackeries. Because no-one wants to feed them anymore. That's an industry that will on one hand tell me that I'm inhumane in killing a lovely animal, and on the other hand is allowing ten to twenty thousand horses a year... be unwanted... and let's just get rid of them behind closed doors, and let's pick on Vince Gareffa, but not wake up to the fact that we need some good rules and regulations for horses going to the, the pet factory, they should be treated with respect, and if they're valuable as a food commodity, you see how many more horses end up with a better life."
To say that horses owners are ALL condoning what goes on is pretty insulting. Lumping all Australian horse people in together is pretty convenient for your argument, but unfortunately it doesn't accurately portray the "horse industry" in Australia.

The non-racing section of the horse owning public is huge, but how is the average Aussie with a horse supposed to put a stop to the excesses of the big business of racing, with their huge earnings and considerable lobbying power?

To illustrate this in a way that non-horsey people will be able to more easily understand, let's substitute dogs for horses for a moment. How many dog owners do you know who are not happy about the thousands of perfectly healthy dogs being euthanised in shelters each year because they can't find a home? About racing greyhounds being put to sleep because they're not fast enough?

What is the average dog owner supposed to do about the huge number of dogs being bred by irresponsible people?

If all of the problems in an industry haven't been solved, that doesn't mean everyone is happy for there to be problems!

I agree wholeheartedly that much stricter regulations are required, both on horse breeding and on the procedures at knackeries. I think you'll find that the many horse welfare and rescue groups operating in this country agree on that particular point, if you take the time to ask them.

Mr Garreffa, to put it plainly, you can't claim that people don't care about the tens of thousands of horses being sent to slaughter each year, just because no-one has approached you directly to talk about the issues prior to you selling the meat in your shop.

Vince Garreffa - "RSPCA's happy with us!"

Linda Monique - "RSPCA? Have approved? Yes?"

Vince Garreffa - "They are happy, because of the fact that they only worry about when the horse is alive, and when they know my story, they realise that I'm making the life of the horses destined for the table a much happier one for the last few months."

Have they overseen the slaughter of the horses in question? Have they undertaken to ensure that the abattoir workers in what is clearly a non-horse abattoir, are trained in the handling of horses? That the facilities are appropriate for horses?

I'm interested to find out about this claim of RSPCA approval. I'll see what I can find out, and share my findings in a future blog post.

In summary, I'm glad to see this interview in an unedited form, where Mr Garreffa has been allowed to basically ramble through his diverse "arguments". Seen in context, it's easy to see that he is even more misguided on many aspects of this issue than I had originally thought.

But we agree on one thing. Horse welfare in Australia is in a very sorry state indeed, and in desperate need of attention. For those who have made it to the end of this very long blog post, please see "How you can help" for simple things that any concerned person can do to help Australian horses.


  1. Huh... my thoughts exactly. I would love you to interview him and pose your questions to him! Pretty sure he would trip over his own tongue.

    His only excuse is to sell it because he can!

  2. Sounds like some people I know in the USA. Makes no sense, especially considering we have no way of tracking what drugs our horses are exposed to either. I'm hoping the EU will just decide to stop importing US horses completely. I really is the only safe thing to do.

  3. Update: The RSPCA had no contact from Mr Garreffa, so his claims in this video are his own interpretation of their policies. They are not "happy" with him, and have not "approved" his horse meat activities. Very misleading statements for him to make!