5 ways you know you're eating rat meat

On Thursday, China's Ministry of Public Security announced that the police had arrested 63 traders accused of buying rat, fox, and mink meat and then selling the meat as mutton. Apparently, the crime ring had been mixing the meat with gelatin, red dye, and nitrates before selling it in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province. How appetizing.

It has been quite a year for food scandals, what with IKEA's horsemeat meatballs and China's floating dead pigs. To China's credit, the country appears to be tackling the food safety issue head on (state media report that Chinese law enforcement officials have arrested more than 900 people for selling fake or tainted meat in the last three months). But this latest revelation has shocked more than reassured, leaving many in China to wonder whether the "mutton" stewing on their stoves is really made of lamb after all.

But never fear! Foreign Policy reached out to North Carolina-based artist Laura Ginn, who, after organizing a rat-themed five-course dinner in New York last year, has become somewhat of a rat meat connoisseur. With her help, we hereby offer you five ways to know you're eating rat.

1. It smells like rat. Rats secrete an oil onto their skin that gives them their distinct "rodenty" odor. Some compare the smell to that of a warm tortilla, says Ginn, while others compare it to urine. Regardless, it's distinctive. While it's true that the odor lessens after the rat is skinned, and again after the rat is cooked, no amount of cooking can ever completely get rid of the smell.

2. It tastes like rat. The oil rats secrete gives them a distinctive taste as well. Ginn describes it as quite pungent and gamey -- most similar to raccoon or rabbit. Blended with other meats, rat becomes a lot less distinctive, so you'd have to be rather discerning to notice it.

3. It tastes delicious when brushed with a moonshine glaze and barbecued. Of all the ways Ginn has eaten rat, this is her favorite preparation. A close second is smoked rat jerky served on brioche French toast. So, if you happen to be savoring a moonshine-BBQ dish, or think there is something slightly "rodenty" about the gamey and delicious jerky you are consuming, you might want to check the ingredients.

4. It looks like lamb. When it's raw, pinkish/red rat looks very much like lamb. Unfortunately for the Chinese, when ground, rat can look a lot like any generic ground meat. When cooked, rat looks more like rabbit, Ginn thinks, just because of the shape of the cuts.

5. You're in Asia. According to Ginn, rats are most commonly eaten in Asia because of the rice crop. In areas where rats feed off rice paddies rather than garbage, the rodents are considered safer to eat. Of course, it isn't clear whether the rats marketed as mutton in China were healthy, rice-fed rats or sewer-dwelling, garbage-eating, Templeton-esque rats. The New York Times reports that the arrest announcement "did not explain how exactly the traders acquired the rats and other creatures." Rats are also disease carriers, so when Ginn organized her meal she ordered hers from a company that supplies specially raised, grain-fed rodents to zoos.

Bon appétit!

Laura Ginn


How does America's suicide rate compare globally?

The suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by roughly 28 percent between 1999 and 2010, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people (the suicide rate is much higher for middle-aged men, at 27.3, than for women, at 8.1). The increase, the New York Times noted, is raising concerns that "a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm."

The numbers are troubling, but how do they compare to rates in other parts of the world? Suicide data is notoriously hard to compile because it is believed to be vastly underreported -- and the level of reporting varies from country to country, which makes comparing rates across nations an inexact science. But a look at World Health Organization data indicates that the United States falls more or less in the middle of the pack for both male and female suicides, with 17.7 male deaths (38th-most among 105 countries) and 4.5 female deaths (40th) per 100,000 people (the transnational statistics are drawn from varying years).

Men commit suicide more often than women in nearly every nation listed by the WHO report. The only exceptions are China (14.8 women vs. 13.0 men) and the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, which reports that no men commit suicide there and that women commit suicide at a rate of only 1.8 per 100,000. That data, though, was is from 1987.

Lithuania, meanwhile, has the highest suicide rate among men, with 61.3 deaths for every 100,000 citizens, followed by Russia (53.9), and one of the largest gender gaps, with the rate for Lithuanian women at 10.3. South Korea has the highest rate for women at 22.1 and more parity between genders, with a rate of 39.9 for men. 

In 2008, Reuters took an in-depth look at Lithuania's struggle with suicide, noting that high rates are a particularly painful social issue for the post-Soviet Baltic states despite their economic growth:

Pensioners struggle to survive, healthcare facilities are often poor and cases of tuberculosis, a disease often associated with poverty, are far above the EU average.

Tens of thousands of Latvians and Lithuanians have emigrated to seek higher wages and a better life: others seek a more final way out....

Suicide is particularly prevalent in rural communities where unemployment rose following the dissolution of Soviet era collective farms....

People lack the necessary education and professional skills, or are too old to adapt to new realities, and the state has put too little effort in helping them, experts say. In desperation, many turn to alcohol, fuelling their feelings of hopelessness.

It's a phenomenon that prompted one WikiLeaks cable to dub Lithuania the "suicide capital of Europe."

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