By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Speciality meat suppliers in Britain have seen a surge in sales of horse burgers, with a scandal over the discovery of horsemeat in beef burgers and ready meals apparently piquing the curiosity of some shoppers.
Viewed as a delicacy in some European countries, in South America and in east Asia, horsemeat is generally not eaten in Britain where a horse loving public has traditionally viewed the idea of consuming it with some distaste.
The discovery of horse DNA in beef burgers and spaghetti bolognese sold by Britain's retailers, including market leader Tesco, and in beef lasagne made by frozen foods group Findus, has drawn widespread condemnation, with government ministers blaming an "international criminal conspiracy".
However, extensive media coverage of the Europe-wide scandal and an outbreak of horse jokes on twitter, e-mail and texts has also sparked interest in the consumption of horsemeat and other even more adventurous meats.
"While people are putting horse into their shopping cart on the website they are also putting in things like zebra, llama and alpaca," said Paul Webb, director of central England-based speciality meat supplier Exotic Meats.
Horsemeat, which has a sweet, gamey flavor, is cheaper and healthier than beef, containing half the fat, more Omega 3, and high in protein and iron.
Though none of Britain's supermarkets sell horsemeat, it is available through speciality meat suppliers and is on the menu of a few notable restaurants, such as L'escargot Bleu in Edinburgh. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has also heralded it.
Exotic Meats has seen sales of horsemeat burgers, steaks and mince increase ten-fold since the scandal erupted on January 15.
"People are inquisitive, intrigued by what it tastes like," said Webb, noting horsemeat products were proving popular for dinner party hosts who wanted to provide "a good talking point."
Exotic Meats' horsemeat is sourced from either France, Spain or Italy and processed in Britain by an EU approved plant.
Last week in response to the Findus scandal the firm posted on its website a recipe for horsemeat lasagne.
RIGHT TO EAT
Berwickshire, Scotland-based Kezie Foods, which sells horsemeat products alongside elk, kangaroo and crocodile, has seen horsemeat sales double over the last three weeks, with strong demand from restaurants as well as individuals.
"Whenever you have issues to do with alternative meats you either have people who decide that's not for them or people who want to exercise their right to eat whatever they choose to eat," said director Walter Murray.
For some the idea of eating horse remains abhorrent.
"For many horse owners, eating horsemeat is as repulsive a concept as eating cat or dog," said Victoria Spicer, editor of Horse & Country TV.
"The horse has been an integral part of Britain's history and culture, and we owe our equine friends much more than this."
The British Retail Consortium, whose members represent 80 percent of the UK retail industry, said although there was no evidence of consumers avoiding beef they were being more selective in beef burger purchases, with more interest in fresh burgers rather than frozen ones.
"What we're hearing from our members is that there hasn't been any drastic change in customers' buying patterns as a result of any of this because they're clear that this is not a safety issue," said a BRC spokesman.
However, independent butchers said they have seen an upturn in recent trade.
"Independent butchers are experiencing greater footfall at the present time," said Roger Kelsey, CEO of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, which represents Britain's traditional high-street butchers.
"That's basically because in the eyes of the general public local traders are a better source of supply, due to their on site controls, because they tend to source product from local sources and they produce their own products on site."
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Mark Potter)