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"Top Chef Canada," contestants which premieres Monday April 11, 2011 on Food Network Canada, are shown in a handout photo. The reality TV show "Top Chef Canada" came under fire Monday over an episode in which contestants were asked to prepare a dish using horse meat.Food Network Canada handout/The Canadian Press

The reality TV show "Top Chef Canada" came under fire Monday over an episode in which one contestant was asked to prepare a dish using horse meat.

As the show aired Monday night, over 4,500 people had joined a Facebook group called "Boycott Top Chef - Protect the Horses," filling it with angry comments about the use of the equine meat in the instalment.

Debate also raged on news sites including CNN and Huffington Post.

Debbie Shorten, who has two horses at her home in Fredericton, said she supported the "Boycott Top Chef" Facebook page because she feels horses aren't humanely treated during transport to slaughter houses.

"My issues relate to ... tons of literature that talks about how horses are transported," Ms. Shorten, 56, said in a phone interview, noting she was a fan of the show up until now.

"If they put on a show about eating dog, I'm sure Canadians would be absolutely bonkers about the whole thing.... In essence, by putting this on a television show, we're supporting the use of horse meat as an ingredient in a menu and I find that really horrifying."

"Top Chef," which premiered in April, features professional chefs competing for a $100,000 grand prize and kitchen equipment worth $30,000. It's based on a popular U.S. program.

In a statement on the "Top Chef Canada" Facebook page, Food Network Canada said it did not mean to offend viewers.

"The challenge in this episode involves having the competitors create a truly authentic, traditional French menu. One of the most traditional French foods is horse meat. Horse meat is also considered a delicacy in many cultures around the world.

"While we understand that this content may not appeal to all viewers, Food Network Canada aims to engage a wide audience, embracing different food cultures in our programming."

In another statement issued early Monday evening, the network also assured viewers that "the horse meat along with all protein featured in this episode was federally approved and meets (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) standards."

It also pledged to investigate the issues surrounding the consumption of horse meat and "carefully consider all the facts around this topic should horse meat be suggested for any future production."

Horse meat, which is known to be slightly sweet and tender, is widely eaten in parts of Asia, Europe, South America and Canada.

Last October, animal-rights activists held several demonstrations across Canada, calling for support of a private member's bill that would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

It's not the first controversial meat to be used on "Top Chef Canada," which features Canuck star chef Mark McEwan as head judge.

In the first episode, one of the chefs made a dish with seal flipper to represent his hometown of St. John's.

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