Some of you may have noticed the storm in a teacup happening on the other side of the Atlantic, after a routine test of the burger meat in a supermarket revealed that the so-called beef was actually one-third horse meat.
The path that found horse meat in British burgers was long, circuitous and involved some serious sleight-of-hand along the way. Everyone has claimed that the products they shipped out or received were labeled as they were supposed to be. They left slaughterhouses in Romania labeled as horse and arrived in France labeled as beef. The discovery incited shock, horror and outrage in Britain and a certain amount of eye rolling in places like France and Iceland, where horses are regularly slaughtered for meat.
The meat was traced to an intermediary corporation, Draap Trading. Draap is owned by a trust in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven that tends to attract corporations looking to avoid paying domestic taxes, and has been connected to the global arms trade. This scandal has raised a lot of concerns about the security of the food chain in Europe and elsewhere, particularly once authorities realized how much European beef was actually equine in origin.
People have been eating horses far longer than we’ve been riding them, penning stories about them, or writing laws specifically against having sex with them. Horses were domesticated about 10,000 years ago, close to the end of the last Ice Age (or glacial period, since this is supposed to be a geek column). In their conjoined history with humans, there has never been a period of time when we weren’t eating them, though it probably became less common after they were domesticated. Economically, using them as working animals makes more sense than eating them; a horse’s digestive system is less efficient than a ruminant’s, which means that a cow will produce more edible meat on the same amount of feed.
The taboos against eating them have a number of sources. Mosaic law outlaws their consumption, since horses aren’t cloven-toed animals, which means they’re forbidden from Kosher and Muslim diets. Pope Gregory III outlawed it in 732 CE, hoping to discourage a practice that was tied to Norse pagan rituals in Scandinavia.
Despite all that, there are still plenty of places to eat horse meat, should one so choose. It’s on menus from China to Chile, Sweden to Slovenia, Italy to Iceland and plenty of other places besides. It’s common in places that once had large nomadic populations, such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Horse meat is also widely accepted elsewhere as either a delicacy or as an alternative to beef.
France’s history of eating horse meat is almost entirely political and surprisingly modern, dating back to the Revolution, when the horses maintained by the aristocracy became food for the starving Parisian masses. During the Napoleonic era, the slaughter and sale of horse meat was legalized to provide a cheaper alternative to beef in an attempt to alleviate the pressures of inflation. And during the 1870 Siege of Paris, horses were butchered to both feed the populace and to save on grain in the blockaded city.
Personally, I’m ambivalent about eating horses. As someone who has known and taken care of horses, I will never be a believer in the magic magestickness of Equus ferus. Once I had my ass kicked by a cantankerous pony and had to shovel a half-ton of shit, horses were demoted from ethereal beings of wonder and delight to being animals. Like most animals, including humans, they have personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from being on the food chain.
I’m not the only ambivalent eater who’s somewhat perplexed by the kerfuffle. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, wrote a lengthy thought-experiment on the various dietary taboos amongst different cultures, throwing up his hands as to why Brits were making such a fuss over an animals that’s regularly eaten across the Channel in France.
However, my and Boris’s ambivalence shouldn’t detract from the fact that this scandal is, in fact, a real problem. If someone is buying something labeled as “beef,” there really shouldn’t be anything besides dead cow in the package. Even if it’s a lump of processed meat, totally unrecognizable from its original source and contained in a frozen lasagna. When we live in a world of globalized food processing, we need to be able to trust the labels.
One good thing that’s come out of this mess? Small-scale butchers in Britain have seen a jump in demand. If you want to be able to trust your meat, first get a butcher you can trust.