The first time chef Michael Hunter tasted wild turkey — truly wild, not farmed —it blew his mind. The flavours were unlike any he had tasted before.
“It's just totally different. But also the meat is different – a wild turkey was my first experience eating wild game and compared to the turkey dinners I've grown up eating it's totally different — the meat is dark, the fat is yellow, the flavour is just incredible,” Hunter says.
It’s the kind of experience the co-owner of Toronto’s Antler Kitchen Bar would love to bring to his restaurant, but can’t.
Under Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, it’s illegal to sell wild game in restaurants. Some pass off game such as duck, boar or deer as wild when listing it on a menu — but if it’s for sale in a restaurant, it’s farmed. Hunters can serve their food to friends and family, or even give it away, but selling it in any setting is forbidden. While some say there are good conservation reasons for the law, others in the food industry argue that the restriction can be cumbersome.
Hunter is a hunter himself and has held charity dinners where he’s served wild game.
“I serve it at home, I cook it for friends and family, but as it stands it's just a pain in the neck to do it at the restaurant,” Hunter says. The law allows hunters to serve wild game dinners as long as the profits go to a charity.
Part of this law’s roots come from previous overhunting of wildlife, says Dylan Gordon, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto whose dissertation is on wild food. His research focuses primarily on foraged mushrooms and wild plants, which for the most part are legal to sell in Ontario.
“Historically, it used to be legal [to sell wild game] and the result was seen to be overexploitation. Arguably that's why we don't have bison any more. The bison were hunted to near-extinction, and that was because of market hunting,” Gordon says.
Wild plants are sometimes also subjected to protection due to market pressures. For example, in Ontario it’s illegal to pick wild ginseng, which can sell for as much as $1,000 per pound on the open market.
Wild meat is legal to give away, so long as it has been properly prepared by a licensed and inspected butcher. A First Nations-run wild food bank in Sudbury does just that, accepting donated game from local hunters and giving it to anyone in the community in exchange for an offering of tobacco.
Some other provinces have already lifted the prohibition on sale of wild game. Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia both allow the sale of wild game in restaurants. The regulatory regime in those provinces requires hunters to have licences and tags for the animals they kill, and that restaurants be specifically licensed to serve wild game.
“As long as it’s regulated, the population of animals is not diminished. I don't want to sell wild game in the restaurant all the time — I don't think it should be available as a menu item,” Hunter says. “I just like to be able to do it sometimes or have a feature or have it as an option for people to try.”
Quebec was to launch a pilot project in 2014 that would allow 10 restaurants to serve wild game, with proper licensing and inspection in place for both hunters and restaurateurs. Though it received widespread press, the government shelved the project, according to chef Normand Laprise, whose Montreal restaurant Toqué! was supposed to have been part of the project.
The issue isn’t so much whether or not it can be regulated, but whether it should be allowed, says Gordon. Climate change is placing greater pressures on wild food sources in the north, with far-flung First Nations populations seeing drastically changed hunting seasons. At the same time, the province is making hunting easier by reopening the spring bear hunt.
“Another way to look at it is why should wealthy urbanites who dine in these restaurants have access to these animals, which are scarce becoming scarcer?” Gordon says. “What about First Nations people who actually subsist on country foods and can't because of development pressures?
“It just adds further pressure to an already-difficult situation. There are other issues at play aside from the population argument and conservation argument. Whose right is it to use these animals for food?”
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