From Tesco to Burger King to IKEA, the horse-meat saga has gripped the western world for the past month. Horse hasn’t even made it into stateside meaty meals, but you wouldn’t know it from our outsize horror at the idea of chowing down on lovable ponies.
As someone who hasn’t eaten animals in a really long time, I’ve been kind of confused about all this. Why the moral panic about this four-legged mammal and not all the other ones that end up in sandwiches? This isn’t a modest proposal — I’m genuinely trying to understand.
“The unfolding drama around Europe’s horse-meat scandal is a case study in food politics and the politics of cultural identity,” Marion Nestle wrote at Food Politics. “They (other people) eat horse meat. We don’t. Most Americans say they won’t eat horse meat, are appalled by the very idea, and oppose raising horses for food, selling their meat, and slaughtering horses for any reason.”
Raising horses for meat was re-legalized in the U.S. in late 2011, against the wishes of the Humane Society, which argued that horses shouldn’t be eaten because they’re considered “companions.” But since then, no horse slaughterhouses have actually managed to open their doors in the U.S.; one would-be horse-meat purveyor recently sued the government for moving too slowly on inspections.
As Cord Jefferson points out at Gawker in a post entitled “You should eat horse,” horse meat is cheaper than beef, comparable in terms of calories and protein, and has way more omega-3 fatty acids. But he notes that there’s some legit cause for concern:
There are two very valid reasons to be upset at the thought of someone switching your beef with horse. The first is that consumers have a right to purchase food whose labels don’t lie to them. Secondly, not all horse meat is created equal. While some horses killed for food, particularly those in Europe, are safe for human consumption, many of the more than 100,000 American horses shipped outside our borders to be eaten annually are former racing animals whose flesh is laced with steroids and other chemicals as harmful as phenylbutazone. European food-safety officials started turning away American horse meat last year for fear it was too full of dangerous drugs, but this horse-as-beef scandal now calls into question how effective those officials actually are.
I think we can all agree that our food safety system sucks. But this horse-meat scandal also calls into question our deep cultural food biases.
As a nation, we eat a hell of a lot of animals, more than any other country on Earth. We eat lab-produced foods, fast-food junk, and bugs. We eat mislabeled seafood; recent studies on widespread seafood fraud have gotten attention, but strip-mall sushi restaurants don’t appear to have experienced a dropoff in popularity. So why the uproar over horse?
Just think how much worse this could be, folks. German politicians have suggested distributing horse-tainted products to the poor. And in South Africa, burgers and sausages have been found to contain water buffalo, donkey, and goat. Then again, maybe buffalo and goat would be considered offal-esque delicacies in American bistros.