A burger walks into a bar and orders a drink. “I can’t hear you!” says the barkeep. “Oh, sorry,” replies the burger, “I’m a little horse.”
According to a recent New York Times article, the above is one of many groaners going around in England these days following a scandal resulting from horse meat being sold as beef. Inspectors have detected equine DNA in pre-packaged heat ‘n eat foods, including various brands of lasagna, spaghetti bolognese, burgers and Ikea’s meatballs.
Some see this as a labeling controversy; they expect food to contain only those ingredients listed on the box and nothing else. Others find eating horse just plain disgusting.
When I shared the above joke at work recently, one of my coworkers shrugged and responded “It’s meat, right?”
As a vegetarian, I think my coworker’s response is spot on. I don’t see much difference between eating the flesh of one animal species and that of another. But I was a bit surprised that my coworker, a meat-eater, felt the same way.
I would tend to think that most people neither know nor care about the origin of the ground meat that appears in their pasta or meatballs. They would probably assume that it was part of a cow at some point, but who really knows? I am reminded of the “mystery meat” of school lunch days. If it tastes okay, it’s all good. Or, as my grandfather was fond of saying, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
A common objection in the horse meat scandal is that horses are pets, and we don’t eat pets, right? I am all for truth in labeling and personal choice. But when it comes to what does or does not constitute a pet, and whether it is or not permissible to eat said animal, it comes down to the standards of the culture.
One of the most famous examples of this is the “holy cow,” revered by the Hindu faith. In some parts of India, cattle roam the streets and most wouldn’t think of these gentle beasts as food. In North America and Europe, dogs and cats are considered pets, not to be eaten under any circumstances. But this is not the cultural standard in other parts of the world. When I lived on the east coast of the United States, hardly a year went by when there was not a rumor going around about domesticated pets showing up in the freezers of one Chinese restaurant or another. My father refers to this phenomenon as “moo goo meow mew” and “har kow bow wow.” In fact, Japan, not China, has been tagged as the greatest consumer of horse meat worldwide (although China has been identified as the largest supplier of horse meat).
There is nothing inherently wrong in treating one species as food while forbidding the consumption of another. Local culture dictates the tune of this song.
The same is true of horses. In North America, we tend to think of horses in terms of riding stables, old fashioned horse and buggy transportation, taming the wild west, Canadian Mounties and Black Beauty. Equestrian skills and horse grooming are shown off by kids at the county fair. And we treat the bridle and the saddle as a part of Americana. Although we wouldn’t expect to see horse flesh in the meat case at Safeway or Winn Dixie, in France and other European nations, horse meat is sold openly by local butchers and large supermarket chains alike.
Does anyone else remember the episode of All in the Family, the iconic seventies sitcom, in which Edith (Dingbat) stretches her food budget by serving horse meat for dinner? (I am dating myself, I know, I know.) None the wiser, Archie praises his wife’s cooking and even asks for a sandwich. Meanwhile, his son-in-law, the Meathead, laughs at Archie’s ignorance while dropping hints and innuendoes about horses that go right over Archie’s head.
These days, however, horse meat is generally not sold in the United States or Canada, although this is starting to change in some places. Most North Americans have never tried it and never wish to do so. So inquiring minds want to know: Is horse meat delicious? Many in the blogosphere have raised this question recently. I recommend this post from the Jeju Tourism Organization. I can’t help but notice that a plethora of gourmet recipes using horse meat have been popping up in my newsfeed.
Some of those who do not harbor cultural qualms about eating horse (see “Horsemeat? So What?” on There Are No Meerkats in Scotland) nevertheless have reservations about the possible presence of phenylbutazone in horse meat. “Even with the emotional attachment to horses taken out of the equation,” writes blogger randomslate in her post “Why Not Horse Meat,” horse meat has no place on our dinner plates.”
As a (nearly) vegetarian, I consider myself a neutral party and I do see both sides of the issue.
So, gentle reader, what say thee?