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Apr 14 2013

Should We Be Eating Guinea Pigs?

Pacific Standard magazine has an interesting article that suggests that Americans should start eating guinea pigs, as some cultures in South America do. There are several good reasons for this, including that they are healthier for us and the natural environment:

Andeans have been eating guinea pigs for thousands of years, so long that there are no longer undomesticated members of the species Cavia porcellus around, although (apparently much smarter) wild cousins like the Brazilian guinea pig and wild cavy do exist in unthreatened abundance. The proto-guinea pig was thought to be larger and meatier—not capybara size, to name another tasty South American rodent—but several-pounds-of-meat size. So while millennia of inbreeding have probably seen the species shrink, modern breeding is re-inflating the cuy…

Most recent scientific work looking at guinea pigs and diet mostly concerns what the animals eat (as a proxy for humans), and not having them eaten (by those same humans), but research from the 1980s finds guinea pig is good for you, with more protein and less fat than flesh from pigs, cows, sheep, or chickens. Guinea pig is also good for Mother Earth—you don’t need a Ponderosa-sized spread to raise them, and they convert their feed into edible protein twice as efficiently as a cow.

Some will undoubtedly have an “ewwwwwwwwwwww” reaction, thinking of them as pets rather than as food. But what is the difference, other than cultural assumption? Someone from India is every bit as shocked and appalled that you would eat a cow as you are at the thought of eating a guinea pig or a dog or cat. But they are all sources of protein; they are, in short, meat. And there is no coherent moral distinction between eating a guinea pig and eating a real pig. As for me, I would gladly try guinea pig if I ever have the chance. But then I draw the line at bugs, which many cultures have eaten for thousands of years without thinking it in any way odd or icky.

57 comments

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  1. 1
    Tabby Lavalamp

    I would try any non-human meat put in front of me as long as it isn’t primate or endangered. I might be a little squeamish at first if it were cat or dog, but I would still taste it, and horse wouldn’t bother me at all.

    After seeing it on television enough, I must admit I’m also curious about scorpion and would try it if I had a chance.

  2. 2
    Joel Anderson

    I recently tried guinea pig. It was only OK. Not really much meat. I wonder why you draw the line at bugs? It’s just another ewww factor.

  3. 3
    Trebuchet

    But they’re not Kosher! It’s against the Bible!

    Actually, the “not much meat on them” thing would probably serve to prevent them from becoming very popular. It become inefficient to raise them. Even rabbits, a bit bigger, are not widely eaten in this country.

    BTW, you probably eat lots of bits of bugs in processed food, especially vegetable products. The FDA has regulations on how big and how many they can be.

  4. 4
    Karen Locke

    I eat rabbit, and bunnies aren’t that far from guinea pigs on the “awwww” scale. Alas, I have to admit that somebody else has to do the carcass processing. After that, I’m fine.

  5. 5
    abb3w

    Rabbit is a deficient protein, as I recall; using it as the primary dietary protein results in deficiencies on a couple key amino acids, or something like that. Is guinea pig similarly deficient, or a more complete one like chicken?

  6. 6
    Gretchen

    I would try any non-human meat put in front of me as long as it isn’t primate or endangered. I might be a little squeamish at first if it were cat or dog, but I would still taste it, and horse wouldn’t bother me at all.

    This, but I have further exceptions: No cetaceans, elephants, or octopodes. Nothing that has passed the mirror test or seems like it could.

  7. 7
    erichoug

    Meh, I had it when I was in Arequipa a few years ago. If yo do get it, I would recommend ordering it “Sin Cabeza” otherwise the little bastard is staring up at you the whole time. Of course doing so may also lead to Jhonny’s brief moment of culinary rebellion

    “I not gonna eat dat chit, No es una cuy, es una rata!”

    And I will second what others have said, there is only about 4 good mouthfuls of meat on them and that is the big Andean ones, not the ones you get in the pet stores.

  8. 8
    dingojack

    How many rats are there per (human) New Yorker?
    Dingo
    ——–
    Wouldn’t recommend rodents unless you have myxy as a backup.

  9. 9
    Ace of Sevens

    That could just as easily be an argument for not eating cow and pigs.

  10. 10
    stevebowen

    I have thought for a long time that in the UK we should eat the American Grey Squirrel to give our native Red one a chance to thrive again.

  11. 11
    steffp

    Guinea pigs are OK, they taste a bit like rabbit. I’m on a diet of 250 grams of meat per week, so they’ere just the right size for a snack on meat day. As for rats, I’ve only eaten them at the Mekong shore in Cambodia’s rain season, a time when their diet is mostly fresh vegetables. Marvelous curry. Insects are largely subject to individual icky factors: I’ll always have silkworms and locusts, but dislike water beetles strongly.
    It’s all protein…

  12. 12
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    I would definitely try guinea pig. I already had rabbit (not a big deal here in France), and tasted some kind of big wild rat in Africa. And in the UK, some people have already taken to eating grey squirrels as a way to reduce their numbers.

    My only caveat is that guinea pig is the only mammal, with humans, which doesn’t synthetise its own vitamin C. So a diet where it is the main source of meat would require supplementation. Or more fruits and vegetables, of course :-)

  13. 13
    robnyny

    It looks like there are plenty of places in NYC where the curious can try guinea pig:

    http://www.google.com/#hl=en&rlz=1R2TSNO_enUS500&biw=804&bih=346&sclient=psy-ab&q=guinea+pig+queens+restaurant&rlz=1R2TSNO_enUS500&oq=guinea+pig+queens+restaurant&gs_l=hp.3..33i29i30l4.4541003.4551891.2.4552343.34.30.2.2.2.3.959.8863.1j14j6j3j1j2j3.30.0…1.0…1c.1.9.psy-ab.6On2zAp-7So&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.45175338,d.dmg&fp=5a18cd0bdd8a9795

  14. 14
    matty1

    I’ve had cuy in Peru. One thing a lot of people don’t realise is that the breeds kept for meat are distinct from the pet breeds tending to be larger and have more meat on them. I thought it tasted like pork but may have been imagining it.

  15. 15
    Trebuchet

    @SteveBowen:

    I have thought for a long time that in the UK we should eat the American Grey Squirrel to give our native Red one a chance to thrive again.

    I assume you’re in the UK, but what you say applies equally here in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. Unfortunately, instead of feeding on the gray tree-rats, my wife actively feeds them. They come up and look in the windows and beg. She also used to breed guinea pigs, no way she’d countenance eating them.

  16. 16
    Modusoperandi

    Mmmmm. Tiny spareribs.
     
    Trebuchet “BTW, you probably eat lots of bits of bugs in processed food, especially vegetable products. The FDA has regulations on how big and how many they can be.”
    Typical Big Government! The Free Market should decide how much bugs are in our food!

  17. 17
    Brandon

    Sure, I’d be not only good with trying them, but excited to. I don’t see there being any relevant moral barrier that I didn’t already clear with cows, pigs, deer, bison, goat, lamb, rabbit, ostrich, chicken, turkey, goose, duck and whatever other animals I’ve had that I don’t recall.

  18. 18
    David C Brayton

    Koala bear stew is my favorite.

  19. 19
    regexp

    Someone from India is every bit as shocked and appalled that you would eat a cow

    I think this is a bad example. I never met someone from India shocked or appalled when I’ve eaten a cow. At least not someone who is educated. And I spend most of my working hours with them.

  20. 20
    coragyps

    We probably need to get both the Guinea pig and the Mexican Hairless dog back on dinner tables. They just need to be rebranded first – who ever ate a slimehead before it was renamed “orange roughy?”

  21. 21
    democommie

    I read some years back that one of the euphemisms for “rat” in China is “house deer”.

    Skwerlz, I hatez em. When I bought my house it had been derelict for about seven years. In that time it had been used as a habitat by feral cats, skunks and skwerlz (also pigeons and starlings). The cats and skunks had moved on when I bought the place but the treeratz, pigeons and starlings were still in residence. I chased off the avian squatters and after a month or so they stayed gone. The rodents had to be trapped and euthanized with a length of vacuum hose, the pickup’s exhaust pipe and a large plastic bag to hold hte Have-a-heart (NY state law says you can catch and kill or catch and release on your own property, you cannot transport the animals). It took two years to get rid of the bastards. My neighbor’s wife told me that if they were “country” skwerlz she’d have cooked them fo rme. I would try one, meat’s meat.

    “would try any non-human meat put in front of me as long as it isn’t primate or endangered. I might be a little squeamish at first if it were cat or dog, but I would still taste it, and horse wouldn’t bother me at all.’

    Slippery slope warning! It’s guinea pig, today; long pig, tomorrow!

    “Koala bear stew is my favorite.”

    If you’re eating those young, tender ones make sure you clean them well. Teh Koala babeez be eatin’ adult dung to get the enzymes for breakin’ down eucalytpus leaves. BTW, wear long, sturdy gloves; Koala’s look cute but they are vicious little fucks when aroused and have dangerous claws.

  22. 22
    Modusoperandi

    regexp “I think this is a bad example. I never met someone from India shocked or appalled when I’ve eaten a cow. At least not someone who is educated.”
    If by “a cow” you mean “an entire cow” I’d imagine they’d be more surprised than anything else. I sure would be and I’m not even from India. Heck, just the plate alone would elicit a gasp.

  23. 23
    Modusoperandi

    democommie “BTW, wear long, sturdy gloves; Koala’s look cute but they are vicious little fucks when aroused and have dangerous claws.”
    Anyone who is going around arousing Koala’s deserves what they get.

  24. 24
    Trebuchet

    May I propose something with a bit more meat on it, and more local to boot? Raccoons! Despicable critters, they are! Far too many of the pestilential things. Yes, I’ll admit the babies the humane trapper pulled out from under my house where they were born were cute, but you should see the mess the mother made.

    When he started under for them, the trapper quite apologetically said to me, “If the mother gets aggressive I might have to shoot her with the pellet gun.” I could only think, “Don’t you have a real one?”

  25. 25
    Who Knows?

    My memories guinea pigs, when I was a child, would make it difficult. They smelled of piss and were always wet with the stuff. Don’t know if my friends just didn’t know how to care for them, or what? Never wanted to be near them.

    It’s funny, I was around a lot of farms growing up. Cows, pigs and chickens never bothered me. Though the milk barn manure trough emptying directly into the pig pen made me reconsider pork chops for a time.

  26. 26
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    I would try any non-human meat put in front of me as long as it isn’t primate or endangered. I might be a little squeamish at first if it were cat or dog, but I would still taste it, and horse wouldn’t bother me at all.

    “Squeamish … if it were cat or dog”? I think it’s all about what we keep as house pets. When I lived in Korea, where they pretty much don’t keep dogs as house pets (though there are working dogs on farms), my students took me to eat dog without blinking. They raise dogs as food animals there, in pretty much the same way we raise pigs.

    I might be a bit squeamish about eating cat, because they’ve been my primary pets throughout my life… but if I were served cat in a culture where they’re understood to be food rather than pets, I’d try it without hesitation. (Dog, BTW, was very tasty.)

    As much as I love beef and pork, we probably do need to be thinking of meat sources that can be raised with a lower environmental footprint per portion than cows and pigs. At the end of the day, I’d rather switch from pig to guinea pig than give up meat altogether!

  27. 27
    thecalmone

    Some of you may be surprised to learn that many Australians regularly eat kangaroo, even in the cities. It’s been on supermarket shelves for years. Given the problems we have with feral introduced species it’s a pity we don’t eat camel, water buffalo, horse and wild pig.

  28. 28
    Dr X

    I’d try guinea pig. Why not? I’ve eaten Chicago cicadas, the ones on the 17-year cycle. They were on the menu at a few restaurants in 1990 and 2007, though the harvest was far less abundant in ’07. I had them with some fava beans and a nice chianti. No, seriously, fried with a tangy dipping sauce.

  29. 29
    The Cat From Outer Space

    abb3w sez:

    Rabbit is a deficient protein, as I recall; using it as the primary dietary protein results in deficiencies on a couple key amino acids, or something like that. Is guinea pig similarly deficient, or a more complete one like chicken?

    This isn’t true.

    Rabbit meat has a full compliment of amino acids and is a complete protein. Rabbit has more quality protein per unit weight than beef or chicken.

    What rabbit meat lacks is a lot fat. The meat is so lean that people who have been lost in the forest or something and tried to survive on rabbit meat alone have suffered “rabbit starvation” a medical ailment that occurs when your liver tries to metabolise too much protein, coupled with a lack of fat and carbohydrate in the diet. By cooking rabbit in oil, or eating other stuff with your bunny you can easily get around this. In today’s society, unless you’re lost in the woods, rabbit starvation is not a likely possibility.

    As a further aside, you don’t need a full complement with piece of protein you eat, only to ensure you get enough complete protein over the course of the day. Vegetarians and vegans mix and match protein sources (rice and beans being the canonical example) and get by just fine.

  30. 30
    Canadian Yankee

    Of course, one reason why guinea pigs are both healthy and environmentally friendly is because they aren’t popular in the developed world. If they were, then we’d undoubtedly have giant, polluting factory farms full of inhumanely raised guinea pigs bred for maximally fatty meat and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

  31. 31
    Carlos Cabanita

    The most lovely animal we eat is the cow. Wonderful and friendly animals, and we eat them.
    But, about shocking food…
    One of the favorite dishes here in Portugal is roasted piglet. People drive many miles to go to the best restaurants specialized in that dish. When I’m eating it with friends, I like to remind them that, by all available accounts, people that tasted human flesh say that it tastes like pork. So, what they are eating is what a roasted baby should taste like. Some of my friends don’t like the joke at all.
    One other dish we love is, in fact, rabbit or hare à la hunter. A casserole with potatoes and herbs.

  32. 32
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    Thecalmone, you can indeed buy camel and water buffalo meat if you know where to look. It’s quite easy in the NT, harder down in the south.

    For non-Aussies: kangaroo is easy to buy in most supermarkets. It’s wild killed, not farmed, and somewhat like venison to taste and cook – very low fat so pretty healthy but needs care to cook. Eating koala is a joke; it’s a protected species. Crocodile and emu can be farmed and eaten; most other native species are protected. Specialty game-meat stores might import possum from NZ, where they are a feral pest.

  33. 33
    aaronbaker

    I admit the complete irrationality of happily eating cow’s flesh and then being squicked out by chomping on guinea pigs–and yet it’s STILL creeping me out. More proof, if I needed it, that reason isn’t the soul’s charioteer.

  34. 34
    Gretchen

    So, what they are eating is what a roasted baby should taste like. Some of my friends don’t like the joke at all.

    Gee, I can’t imagine why. You’re so clever, and all.

  35. 35
    dingojack

    David C Brayton (#18) – hope you’ve had that Chlamydia looked at.
    :) Dingo
    ———–
    PS: I’m not sure, but I think another problem with eating only rabbit flesh is zinc deficiency.

  36. 36
    dingojack

    Bring back pigeon pies, that’s what I say! Rats of the sky*.
    Dingo
    ——–
    * although locally it’d probably be Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. I assume they would be something like Galahs to eat:

    HOW TO COOK A GALAH.
    1. Pluck and gut the bird.
    2. Insert a large stone inside the body cavity.
    3. Boil in a billy over a hot fire for several days.
    4. When the stone is soft, throw away the bird and eat the stone.

  37. 37
    frog

    The obligatory movie quote:

    Lenina Huxley: [Spartan encounters a burger grill in the underground world] Just don’t ask them where the meat comes from.
    John Spartan: Huxley, what’s that supposed to mean?
    Lenina Huxley: Do you see any cows around here, detective?
    John Spartan: Que es este carne? [What is this meat?]
    Hamburger Stand Scrap: Este carne es de rata. [This meat is from rats]
    John Spartan: Rat? This is a rat burger?
    [vendor nods]
    John Spartan: Not bad! Matter of fact this is the best burger I’ve had in years!
    Hamburger Stand Scrap: Gracias, Senor.
    John Spartan: Prego. See ya later.

  38. 38
    Robert B.

    If a food animal is small, it just means you need more of them. Last night I had a sandwich with, like, thirty shrimp on it, so…

    My family kept guinea pigs as pets when we were kids, and I am by no means less willing to eat them because of that. Far dumber than cats, dumber even than birds, their ceaseless, grating squeals remain the most annoying noise I have ever heard a living being produce without tools, even after five years working in education and one in retail.

  39. 39
    brundlefly

    Gretchen:

    Nothing that has passed the mirror test or seems like it could.

    This would not be an issue with guinea pigs. My girlfriend’s son had a couple for a while and they were dumb as a bag of hammers.

  40. 40
    lsamaknight

    Speaking of koala meat, that’s not something I’d be game to try, at least not without someone else playing guinea pig (if you’ll pardon the expression given the context).

    This is not a moral objection. I just don’t trust the idea of eating the meat of something that subsists almost exclusively on eucalyptus leaves.

  41. 41
    matty1

    I found this picture of a guinea pig bred for food. Subjectively it looks quite a bit bigger than my childhood pets and easily enough for one person, even assuming most of the apparent mass is fur. Still I suppose if you like your diet to be 100% meat, which the comments about getting your vitamin C from it kind of imply, it might not be enough.

  42. 42
    haitied

    Have you seen the way we breed and keep chickens? I think if people were to try to make a staple food of Guinea Pigs they’d end up being bread and raised by the 100,000′s in the tightest of confines just like that. At least in the US. We have a system of pretty horrible cruelty to our livestock and I’d think twice about tossing another species into the mix.

  43. 43
    The Cat From Outer Space

    This would not be an issue with guinea pigs. My girlfriend’s son had a couple for a while and they were dumb as a bag of hammers.

    I had a guinea pig as a kid, and I remember training it to do tricks. It was actually pretty smart.

    I also kept rabbits. Those thing on the other hand… dumb as a bag of… I dunno, what’s dumber than hammers?

  44. 44
    democommie

    “I dunno, what’s dumber than hammers?”

    A bag of GOP tools?

  45. 45
    lostintime

    The video below shows a cuy farm and it seems relatively benign. They are basically raised in hutches, but unlike their lagomorph cousins that are intensively farmed they don’t seem too distressed. Keeping them in cages their whole lives might have adverse welfare implications if they can’t express their natural behaviour, but presumably this could be improved if they had housing that allowed them to go outside. The only thing that would worry me is the way they are slaughtered. If you’re so inclined you can look up cuy slaughter on youtube, which doesn’t seem humane to me (basically their necks are twisted until they break.) This could perhaps be improved, but then again it could also be made worse by automation.
    #26 Bill Dauphin

    I might be a bit squeamish about eating cat, because they’ve been my primary pets throughout my life… but if I were served cat in a culture where they’re understood to be food rather than pets, I’d try it without hesitation. (Dog, BTW, was very tasty.)

    I’d be less inclined to eat a dog or cat knowing that it had been farmed.

  46. 46
    democommie

    Where are the shmoos when we need them?

    http://www.lil-abner.com/shmoo.html

  47. 47
    birgerjohansson

    What about GMOs? Vegetable/tofu matter tasting of pork. We could even eat Long Pig (substitute) without a bad conscience.
    And we don’t lose 90% of the total energy that goes into the food.

    And please replace the invasive Spanish snail with a GM version that tastes good. That way, birds and other animals will keep them at bay before the bastards eat all the gardens of Sweden.

  48. 48
    Gregory in Seattle

    @birgerjohansson #47 – Regarding “long pig,” I read back in the mid 80s that ethical issues of eating humans aside, our meat is so toxic — medicines and other drugs, various diseases, a very long list of environmental poisons — that only about 1 in 19,000 people could pass FDA inspection.

    Just think on that for a moment.

  49. 49
    blf

    I have thought for a long time that in the UK we should eat the American Grey Squirrel to give our native Red one a chance to thrive again.

    This is happening. You can buy it in some butchers’s shops, and there are restaurants where it’s on the menu.

    Saving a Squirrel by Eating One (NY Times).

    The ultimate ethical meal: a grey squirrel: “It tastes sweet, like a cross between lamb and duck. And it’s selling as fast as butchers can get it” (The Grauniad).

  50. 50
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    I tried llama when I was in Bolivia, but never got a chance to try Guinea pig. I want to though. I’m one of those people who is eternally curious about everything, so the mere fact I haven’t eaten something is reason enough to give it a go.

    I’ve had kangaroo before too, that’s nice.

  51. 51
    dougtaron

    I’ve had cuy in Peru before. Some of the previous comments make me wonder if mine had been prepared badly. I found it greasy and nasty. The fact that it was served with head and claws, however, didn’t bother me in the least.

  52. 52
    abb3w

    @29ish, The Cat From Outer Space:

    This isn’t true.

    Rabbit meat has a full compliment of amino acids and is a complete protein. Rabbit has more quality protein per unit weight than beef or chicken.

    What rabbit meat lacks is a lot fat. The meat is so lean that people who have been lost in the forest or something and tried to survive on rabbit meat alone have suffered “rabbit starvation” a medical ailment that occurs when your liver tries to metabolise too much protein, coupled with a lack of fat and carbohydrate in the diet. By cooking rabbit in oil, or eating other stuff with your bunny you can easily get around this.

    Ah, that must be what I was mis-remembering.

    I don’t have rabbit all that often, myself. I think the last time was when a local atheist group had a blasphemy party for Easter about a year ago; I brought tandoori rabbit with a side of deviled eggs, labeled “no more easter bunny”.

  53. 53
    augustpamplona

    Gregory in Seattle wrote:

    I read back in the mid 80s that ethical issues of eating humans aside, our meat is so toxic — medicines and other drugs, various diseases, a very long list of environmental poisons — that only about 1 in 19,000 people could pass FDA inspection.

    Just think on that for a moment.

    I too have read many things. Not all of them are true.

    P.S. I did not even know that FDA was authorized to inspect meat but apparently it is. According to Wikipedia, it seems that while meat inspection normally falls to the USDA, the FDA is authorized to do meat inspection on species not listed by the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957.

  54. 54
    rork

    I help butcher domestic rabbits (and several other species). The interesting thing is that they are practical for families to raise. Easier than chickens, though probably less productive. It’s a possible tactic to get the industry out of your meat. We name them: Butch, Sara, Martha, Louise, Meat, Meat, Meat, Meat………
    Oh, gardeners like their crap, and it’s easier to manage than the stuff from chickens. They aren’t as loud. Fairly practical.

  55. 55
    Area Man

    “But then I draw the line at bugs, which many cultures have eaten for thousands of years without thinking it in any way odd or icky.”

    If you’ve ever eaten lobster or shrimp (and I’m sure you have), it’s basically the same thing. Arthropods with nice meaty abdomen muscles. I’ve never tried bugs, but those who can get over the ick factor say they’re delicious. It’s no wonder given how tasty crustaceans are. I would happily try bugs under the right circumstances, but it’s never happened.

  56. 56
    Area Man

    “I help butcher domestic rabbits (and several other species). The interesting thing is that they are practical for families to raise.”

    Having owned pet rabbits as a kid, I am a very strong believer that rabbits should be eaten.

  57. 57
    birgerjohansson

    So basically we should breed very big lobsters (small brains) or big bugs for meat. Makes sense from a moral viewpoint

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