Food and the Filipino
Feast and Famine

Where’s the beef?

Cattle beef is considered a high-end food. But there’s very little of it in your can of corned beef. [photos by Luz Rimban]

HOW DO we love corned beef? Let us count the ways Filipinos amplify the contents of a small can of corned beef to feed their ever-growing families. There are the pinches of corned beef tucked into pan de sal for quick sandwiches. Or baked in buns to make corned beef rolls a la siopao. Or sautèd in garlic and onions (tomatoes optional), then mixed with sliced chili peppers and diced potatoes before being added to beaten eggs frying in a pan and seasoned with salt and ground black pepper for omelets with a kick.

You can also leave out the eggs and the chili peppers: just sautè the corned beef in onions, garlic, and tomatoes, garnish with potatoes and cabbage or pechay (Asian lettuce), before throwing in some water and letting the whole thing simmer for a bit. Season to taste and you have the ultimate Filipino corned beef dish, the modest local equivalent of the miracle of loaves and fish. This is the recipe that transforms corned beef in a tiny 100-gram tin (the size of two matchboxes) into a savory stew a family of six or more can spoon over rice and feast on — and for just one-tenth the price of a cup of Starbucks cappuccino or even half the price of a 1.5-liter bottle of cola. Quite easily, every mouthful of corned beef con kanin conjures visions of a nutritionally balanced world where meat, a major source of protein sorely lacking in the Filipino diet, is plentiful and cheap.

It’s no surprise then that local canned corned beef has become a P7-billion-a year industry, accounting for nearly half of the processed-meat business. But there are some not-so-secret secrets behind that success, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what corned-beef endorser Aga Muhlach really eats at home. Actually, clues are on the can itself, but too many Filipinos don’t bother reading beyond the price tag. Which means they really don’t know what they’re eating.

Printed on most local corned beef labels, for example, is something like this: “May contain cooked cattle or buffalo meat.” The labels also say other ingredients such as soy protein known as “extenders” or “extensions” went into that can. Put another way, Filipinos may be imagining cows from Argentina gave up their lives so they could one day make it to the Philippines in itty-bitty cans. In reality, however, the beef in local canned corned beef is buffalo — more precisely the curly horned kind from nearby India — and the portions of it in the can are probably much, much less than what corned-beef lovers think. The harsh truth all corned beef lovers should know is this: there’s very little beef in that can, and it’s probably carabao. But then, there’s more nuggets than chicken in chicken nuggets, and you don’t really want to know what goes into those tender, juicy hotdogs.

The beef in local canned corned beef is actually buffalo — the curly horned kind from India.

AS FAR as food scientists and nutritionists are concerned, says agriculturist Emelina Lopez, one of the biggest challenges in these tough times is “to make nutritious food affordable to Filipinos.” That challenge has driven meat-processing companies into finding ways of making processed meat products lighter on Filipino pockets. How they do it, considering the astronomical prices of pork and beef, means two things: that the meat content in processed products like corned beef is shrinking, and that the meat, beef especially, is the cheapest variety there is. How else could the smallest tin of corned beef cost anywhere between P10 and P15?

And so meat processors”“play around” with the formulations of meat products like corned beef and hotdog, varying the proportions of meat and extenders, says Lopez, who heads the Meat Processing Unit of the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) Animal Products Development Center. The extenders bring down the prices of these meat products and are still sources of protein, but no match for the protein coming from real pork, chicken, or beef. But that also means the Filipino version of corned beef is a double extended dish — extended in the can, and then extended in the cooking with the addition of vegetables and spices.

Meat-processing companies are coy about the percentage of pork or beef and textured vegetable protein (TVP) in their products. But Lopez says the more obscure and cheaper brands of hotdog may contain only 20 percent lean meat and about 10 percent fat, with the rest of the ingredients nonmeat, like two to three percent curing mix (common salt, nitrite salt, phosphate, and erythorbate), spices, extenders (protein sources like TVP and gluten), fillers (carbohydrate source like flours and starches), and ice. Yes, ice — crushed, Lopez specifies — because keeping things cold is important in the processing of the products. Anyway, she says, with that much starch mixed in, the water from the melting ice would be absorbed very easily.

“Nobody really declares that there are extenders,” declares Ellen Almendrala, in charge of Research and Development for corned beef at Swifts Foods Inc. Swifts’ most saleable corned-beef product is its Carne Norte, a variety popular among the C, D, and E crowd. Carne Norte, she says,’“is intended for guisado or sautè. So nilalagyan ng flavor, mas enhanced to cover up the extenders. The flavor and aroma mask the extenders.”

Both she and Lopez insist that even with extenders, canned corned beef is nutritious. But Lopez makes it a point to stress that the nutrient Filipinos need most is protein, and if meat processors overdo the fillers in their products, then these will inevitably fail to meet the Pinoys’ protein requirements, and be just another source of carbohydrates.

Different varieties of corned beef products contain varying proportions of actual beef. Almendrala says Swifts used to have its own variety of premium quality corned beef that had larger amounts of beef. But the line fell out of favor because it was not as profitable as the less beefy Juicy Corned Beef and Carne Norte products that are currently Swifts’ runaway bestsellers.

Because Filipinos prefer their corned beef a little soupy, Swifts’ Foods Inc makes it juicy, unlike the imported variety, which is dry. The local version also has a different thread size from imported corned beef that, Almendrala says, has a higher fat content and finer threads of beef. Imported corned beef is sliceable because in Western countries, it is eaten mostly as sandwich fillings and cold cuts, while the Filipino version is meant to be mashed and sautèd into viands or rice toppings.

O MATTER the respective market preferences and the varying recipes for preparing corned beef, though, it is traditionally supposed to be nothing more than cured beef. Here’s a bit of trivia: corned beef has nothing to do with corn, “corning” being a method of curing and preserving beef in a mixture of “corns” or grains of salt and nitrite. According to the DA’s Animal Product Development Center (APDC), nitrite is what gives corned beef its bright red color. It is also what prevents the growth of microbes. Training handouts provided by the APDC state that “sodium nitrite is poisonous in high concentrations” and can be carcinogenic; hence, nitrite is supposed to be used only in minute quantities.

Pinoys love beef, especially in cans, but the local animal industry can barely meet the demand.

Where local and imported brands differ, however, is in the origins of the beef that is corned. Imported brands use cattle beef from South America or Australia. Local ones use buffalo meat, the kind imported frozen from India, which is much cheaper than those sourced from buffalo raisers in the country or anywhere else in the world.

Veterinary quarantine certificates (VQCs) issued by the Department of Agriculture for the importation of meat and meat products show that meat processors have been importing boneless buffalo meat or meat trimmings from India in large quantities over the years. Aside from RFM Food Corporation, parent company of Swifts Food Inc, meat processing companies importing frozen buffalo meat from India include the Pacific Meat Company, which produces the highly popular Argentina as well as the 555 corned beef; Purefoods, the food subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation; Foodsphere Inc, makers of CDO corned beef; as well as the smaller meat processors like Pampanga’s Best and Mekeni Foods.

Talagang we source it from India,” says Almendrala, who laments that the local buffalo or cattle industry simply cannot meet the demands of meat processors for huge volumes and cheaper prices, that are in turn meant to satisfy consumer demands for reasonably priced corned beef.

Data from the Department of Science and Technology and the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics show that the importation of buffalo meat started in 1993 during the term of then President Fidel Ramos who opened the country’s doors to trade liberalization. That year, just a little over 400 metric tons was imported. By 2000, buffalo meat importation had grown to nearly 40,000 metric tons, some 1,000-percent growth in just seven years.

Importers buy Indian buffalo for about P50 per kilo, transportation and importation costs included. Compare that with P80 per kilo of local carabao beef or carabeef, or P190 to P270 per kilo of cattle beef. The Philippines, after all, has just about three million heads of water buffalo, most of which are traditionally used as draft or work animals. India has a surfeit of buffalo — some 98 million heads, which Indians, many of them vegetarian, tap mostly for milk and not for meat.

Dr. Libertado Cruz, executive director of the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija, was part of the DA team that went to India in 1993 and 1994 to assess the impact Indian buffalo imports would have on the local market. He recalls, “We said that if we do not allow the importation of buffalo meat into the Philippines to meet the increased consumption of meat, particularly beef, there will come a time when we will source it locally. Our breeding base is not sufficient to meet that growing requirement. So we might be breeding carabaos or water buffalos and the market might be taking more than the breeders can produce. And we don’t like that to happen.”

IN 1993, the Agriculture Department allowed buffalo meat importations, but only for the meat processing industry. There were other conditions attached to the importation: it should be free of the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), it should be deboned and deglanded, the bones and glands being where the virus germinates, and the meat should be chilled. Chilling removes any trace of virus, if ever, and the curing and processing of the meat further ensures this.

DA rules specify that only meat processors can import Indian buffalo meat. “The importers are the only ones given import permits,” Cruz explains. “If you’re not a processor, there’s no way you can import meat, because the assumption is, if you’re not a processor and you import meat, where are you going to use it? So you are going to sell that in the open market.”

In the Agriculture Department, it is the National Meat Inspection Service and the Bureau of Animal Industry that checks on whether the amount of meat imported by processing companies tallies with their requirement and the capacity of their processing facilities. Ideally, they are supposed to import only enough for their requirements.

But there have been instances when imported Indian buffalo meat hoofed its way into wet markets in Metro Manila. In 2004, the Anti-Smuggling Task Force of the Department of Agriculture conducted raids on wet markets and confiscated, in one wet market alone, a hundred kilos of buffalo meat imported from India. Hog raisers also believe that cheap imported buffalo meat is driving consumers away from pork and may be killing the local hog industry.

All these have made the issue of buffalo meat importation a touchy issue in agriculture sector. It also reveals how the local cattle and carabao industries are ill-equipped to meet the demands of Filipino consumers for beef, even as some livestock growers grouse that India has not been declared free of FMD, and that importing from a country not yet free of FMD will make it difficult for the government to get Luzon off the FMD blacklist.

But this barrage of issues is no match against the single strongest argument for importation that meat processing companies and importers have used so far: consumers are entitled to beef at the lowest prices, no matter that it happens to be buffalo meat imported from India, and no matter that it may eventually get lost in a watery dish called Pinoy corned beef.

LIKE IT or not, too, Bumbay buffalo will be the ingredient local corned-beef makers will be using for sometime yet to justify labeling their products as meat. For now, having a full-blown local carabao industry that produces milk and meat remains just a hazy vision. Many agriculturists partly blame this to the Filipinos’ aversion to carabao meat, which they used to call carabeef. Filipinos have the impression that carabao meat is tough, an impression that goes back to an old law, which agriculturists refer to as the “7-11 slaughter ban.” Then and now, carabaos were kept mainly as draft or work animals; it used to be that farmers were forbidden from slaughtering carabaos unless these were older than seven years if male and 11 years if female. As a result, only retired carabaos that had lean and tough meat ended up in the wet markets.

Supermarket shelves attest to our love of corned beef.

The ban has long been lifted but the aversion remains. Many Filipinos are still unwilling to partake of carabao or buffalo meat and will probably not relish the idea of knowing it is actually what’s in processed meat, especially corned beef. But it’s not only because they think they will lose their teeth trying to bite into carabao meat. If Hindus have sacred cows, Filipino farmers tend to regard their trusty work companions pretty much like sacred carabaos, treating these almost like family. It would be unthinkable for many of them to regard an animal they had depended on for so long and spent many hours with out in the field as potential dinner. As PCC project manager Nur Baltazar observes,’“Ang kalabaw kakambal na ng pagsasaka, pantrabaho (Carabaos are seen as crucial in farming, as important work helpers).””

Such notions have left the likes of Cruz sighing. Cattle beef has always been thought of as high-end or elite beef, but according to Cruz, the meat of a two-year-old carabao is just as tasty as the prime cuts consumers get from the best cattle meat. He also points out that”“in international categorization, beef is defined as meat from either cattle or buffalo” and one is no less edible than the other.

Buffalo, including the Philippine water buffalo, also yields healthy meat because it is grass-fed and therefore organically grown, and has less cholesterol content. A study done by the Cancer Research and Radiation Biology Laboratory of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute compared cattle, carabao, human, and processed milk and found Philippine carabao milk to be the most likely source of anti-cancer protein. Yet at present, only 12,000 head of carabaos are being used for milk in the Philippines, too small to make any dent in the local milk industry.

While Filipinos take their time getting over their biases against carabao meat, the Philippine Carabao Center is currently focusing on improving the native carabao’s genetic make, which has deteriorated over the years. PCC studies show that the Philippine carabao, overworked as a farm animal, has grown smaller and leaner. That’s also because farmers have been castrating bigger carabaos to prevent them from mating, during which time they become fierce and uncontrollable, and a liability to farming, leaving the smaller and thinner ones to breed.

The PCC wants to develop a bigger breed of Philippine carabaos, which is why these days the spacious PCC grounds in rustic Nueva Ecija are hosting a horde of riverine buffalos with curly horns (also known as murrah buffalos). The Indian imports are being readied for mating with the local swamp or water buffalos we know as the Philippine carabao. Four generations of crossbreeding, says Cruz, will eventually produce a local version that is bigger and fatter, the better to produce milk and meat, and not just to slave and starve away in the rice fields alongside the slaving and starving farmer.

In the nearer future, Cruz says, the industry will have to discard the term “carabeef” and all the negative connotations that come with it. “Tenderbuff” is how Australians are now calling their buffalo meat, and Cruz says Filipinos might just christen theirs “Nuevabeef,” since Nueva Ecija is where the Carabao Center is located, and where pilot areas for the growing of carabaos for milk and meat is being done.

In the meantime, there will be no other name for local canned corned beef, even if that in itself is actually a crossbreed of extenders and buffalo meat.