They eat horses, don’t they?
I have been watching with interest the unfolding reporting of horsemeat contamination in British meat products. Concerns about horsemeat first came to light on 15 January 2013 when tests by Irish authorities found horsemeat in beefburgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK and sold in supermarket chains including Tesco and Aldi.
The story broadened to potentially involve as many as 16 European countries. In response to the growing evidence for widespread mislabelling, the EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg urged all EU member states to implement random DNA testing of processed beef products, for a three-month period beginning March 1.
People have certainly been quite agitated by the horsemeat finding. But does the agitation arise from the essential cuteness of horses, or the fear of a corrupted food chain?
Now, I think horses are lovely. I have ridden many and lived with several. But I also think cows, sheeps and pigs are too appealing to kill, and I gave up eating any mammal, marsupial or monotreme many years ago.
However I first stopped eating beef in the 1990s when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) appeared in the UK. It interests me that the press reporting on this current crisis has not raised the spectre of mad cow despite the obvious comparisons. Food safety may have improved greatly over the last few years, but it is clearly still not infallible.
Nor has there been a great deal of reporting on the moral or emotional dimensions of eating horses. Admittedly, horses have been on the menu for a long time. Horsemeat is in the mainstream French diet, and I have often encountered frozen horsemeat in the local IGA in Quebec. British chefs such as Gordon Ramsay have actively endorsed the eating of horses.
As the BBC says:
There is no real logic as to why plenty of Britons are perfectly willing to eat cows, pigs, and chickens, but see horses as taboo, according to Dr Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who runs the Animal Behaviour Centre.
National Geographic observes that cultural attitudes to horsemeat vary, and the real issue may be doubt over food labelling. If a consumer buys a product labelled “100% beef”, they expect beef.
“To me, the main issue is the fact we were lied to. If beef burgers are 60 per cent horsemeat, they shouldn’t be called beef burgers.
“Although I don’t think many people would buy them if they were labelled horse burgers.
“It’s been a disaster waiting to happen and I’m not in the least bit surprised. But I hope some good can come of this and maybe people will look at what they’re eating.
In fact a recent BBC report was far more interested in the possible presence of phenylbutazone in the unexpected horsemeat than the horsemeat itself. The UK Food Services Agency confirmed 14 Feb that the Agency’s most recent tests on the presence of phenylbutazone in horses slaughtered in the UK found eight which tested positive for the drug. Of these, six were sent to France and may have entered the food chain.
CSIRO’s view is that the fuss is more about loss of economic trust than distress over having eaten something repugnant or dangerous. People are angry because they have been sold a cheaper or lower-value product than the one they expected.
It seems that these days, it is quite acceptable to eat horses, as long as nobody is pretending they’re beef.