This horse meat scandal is sweeping Western Europe and quivering even the stiffest of upper lips in Britain. Some people are concerned that the horse meat in their microwaveable pasta dinners may be tainted with an equine anti-inflammatory called phenylbutazone, which in huge doses can cause health risks. But let's get real: Most people are just grossed out at the thought of eating horse meat instead of cow meat. That's stupid.
A disclosure: I don't eat meat, so I don't really—as they say—have a horse in this race. But I ate a bit of horse once in the days when I used to be an omnivore. I was in France, where citizens consumed about 20,000 tons of viande chevaline in 2008, and the piece of horse I ate atop a handful of crusty bread tasted how most people describe it: a bit sweet, a bit gamey, not too unlike beef. It would be especially hard to tell the difference if it were covered in the sugary tomato sauce and gluey cheese generally found in frozen dinners. I can all but guarantee that if Papa John's or any other pizza chain people love to frequent while drinking beer and watching football were to replace its ground-beef topping with ground horse, the lion's share of eaters wouldn't notice. Nobody in the UK was complaining about the horse meat in their food until DNA tests, not taste tests, showed there was horse meat in their food.
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.
But with unadulterated meat, health should not be a concern. If the horse meat you eat is only laden with the same kinds of antibiotics and hormones farmers pump into a vast majority of cattle, pigs, and chickens in America, it is actually downright healthful. Horse meat is quite comparable to lean cuts of beef in the way of calories and protein, but it also contains twice the iron and more than 10 times the concentration of cholesterol-lowering omega-3 fatty acids.
Horse meat is also cheaper than beef, meaning anyone who has a taste for flesh can sate their hunger for less. In America, where the average person eats more than 270 pounds of meat a year, that could amount to a significant savings on food costs.
Horse: A healthy, inexpensive meat that goes fine in pastas, on pizza, sliced into thin strips for a protein boost on salads. A New York Times writer living in France in 2008 even reported overhearing an American couple "happily" scarf down horse burgers while under the impression they were eating old-fashioned, Uncle Sam-approved hamburgers.
So why the repelled sense of dread in everyone at the thought of eating horse meat? In a poll conducted in late 2011, CNN's Eatocracy blog found that more than 42 percent of its readers would outright refuse to eat horse if given the option. What a bunch of misguided snobs.
If Americans are being honest with themselves—if anyone who eats meat is being honest—there is absolutely no reason killing horses and eating the yielded meat is intrinsically worse than the thousands of other animal killings that happen in slaughterhouses around the country every day. If you're alarmed that the wrong meat was slipped into your frozen lasagna, that's reasonable. (Vegetarians, of all people, can appreciate the perils.) But if the very thought of killing horses disgusts you in a way that killing cows or pigs does not, you are entertaining an odd delusion that eating a big steak cut from a cow is elegant while eating similar meat cut from a horse is low-class and vile.
The Western hierarchy of beasts is obviously not any individual eater's fault, as centuries of cultural indoctrination about what animals are and aren't food is hard to shake: cows are food, house pets like cats are not food, goats are sometimes food if you're at an ethnic restaurant, and on like this. But tradition has its limits. There was a time when lobster was considered a poor man's meal in America, fed to New England prisoners and servants, who, folklore says, would occasionally stipulate in their contracts that there would be a limit to how many times they were forced to eat lobster dinners. Now wealthy people will pay a handsome fee for the opportunity to dip those sea cockroaches into big ramekins of clarified butter. Our ancestors' slave food is now our luxury, and all it took was 200 years.
2013 is a year for a similar maturation. The so-called "foodie" movement is rife with some of the most irritating tweeness yet devised, but one development worth keeping is the impulse to eat indiscriminately when it comes to meat. Head cheese, pigs feet, and other offal are now standard offerings on many of America's most expensive menus, brought to you by superfamous chefs like Chris Cosentino and Mario Batali. When Newsweek asked Batali in 2009 why he so loves using odd cuts of meat, he responded, "[A]nyone can put a steak on the grill; this was a bit of a provocation."
If asking people to eat tripe is just "a bit of a provocation," then asking them to eat horse is a punch in the face. Still, if you eat steer meat, you should probably also be eating horse, and dog and cat and donkey and turtle and anything else from which people around the world and through time have been turning into delicious stews and sandwiches. There's really no rational reason why an organic, small-yield slaughterhouse shouldn't be butchering dogs and cats for adventurous consumers. Pigs are close in intelligence to dogs, and dogs eat their own poop and vomit, but one of those we turn into bacon and one of those we let lick us on the face, and all out of a reverence for historical ways and means that mean nothing anymore.
Long gone are the days when everyone needed horses for transportation and therefore looked at them as necessary companion animals. Horses are now mostly for betting on, rich kids who ride English, and the ever-shrinking population of rural families who keep them as labor animals and pets. Only 1.9 million Americans own horses anymore, according to the US Equestrian Foundation [PDF]. Horse meat tastes good and can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. If Americans (and other horse-meat abstainers in the West) can figure out how to manufacture horse meat in a way not reliant on slouched, abused, drug-injected racehorses, there is no reason why you shouldn't one day be able to go down the frozen-food aisle and have a choice between beef lasagna and horse lasagna, no deception necessary.
[Image by Jim Cooke.]