So I’ve been following the horsemeat scandal in Europe for a week or two now. It spreads wider and wider, drawing in abattoirs in Romania, meat processors in France and now the factories of food titan Nestle. I’ve been particularly struck by the shrill, hysterical tone of a lot of the coverage, especially in the UK, where the scandal first emerged. There’s a deep sense of moral outrage in the reporting, as if some terrible violation of human norms has just taken place.
And yet, British as I am, I just can’t muster any outrage myself. Yes, it’s very cheeky to mislabel a product and intentionally mislead consumers. I’d even agree that it’s wrong. But try as I may to find some sense of horror in my soul at the thought of eating Black Beauty, well, sorry. It just ain’t there.
Of course, it may help that I’m in Texas right now, where we ride horses rather than eat them, so I don’t feel that I’m at risk of accidentally swallowing a slice of steed. But that’s not really it, either, because even if I had chowed down on a chunk of equine flesh, I don’t think I’d mind all that much. You see, a few years ago I lived in Kazakhstan, where horsemeat is a delicacy. One day I drove out to a canyon with a couple of friends and a Kazakh in our party produced some tasty horse sausage for our picnic. As I recall, it was smoky, tender and quite juicy. I liked it.
The Kazakhs, meanwhile, are not the only people in the world who like to feast on fillies. In Japan and Korea, both very civilized, technologically advanced countries, they also take a bite out of Seabiscuit now and then. In France, they developed a taste for horsemeat in the 1870s, and have never quite shaken it off - apparently today you can pick up a good equine steak in the supermarket, next to some exquisite wines and cheeses. In many regions of Italy the locals love to sink their teeth into a slab of horse, and that country is one of the most pleasant places on earth. In Quebec I hear they love a bit of bronco, while in China they eat 400,000 tons of My Little Pony every year. Apparently, it’s nice with chili peppers.
In short, horse is pretty darn tasty. And apparently our Stone Age ancestors agreed - in those days, humans ate as much horse as they could lay their grubby hands on. In fact, the anti-horse taboo didn’t get underway until the 8th century AD, when some Pope or other banned it on the grounds that pagans liked it. Even then, good Christian folk continued to munch horse on the sly for centuries.
And thus we may ask: what’s the fuss? All over the world, people enjoy a bit of horse, and indeed it would seem that even the British love it too. After all, horsemeat has been in the food supply since at least 2011 and nobody noticed until now. The instant meals did not neigh or whinny; they did not contain any long hairs from a mare’s mane. Nobody got sick from eating them. Nobody could tell the difference. Indeed, I wonder: is horse better for you than cow? I’m not sure. Nutritionists should run some tests.
In the end, it all comes back to the false labeling. But had the butchers been slyly slipping mutton into their beef products, would the outrage have been as pronounced? I hardly think so. But it seems to me that the dishonesty cuts both ways. Sure, whoever has been selling horse as beef is a naughty boy and should be punished. But why do you think these cheeky fellows did it in the first place? Can anyone really claim to be surprised that massive consumer demand for cheap meat products leads directly to this kind of shortcutting?
In fact, when you think about it, horsemeat is probably one of the least unpleasant things to wind up in all those instant meals and cheap pies today’s meat eaters consume. I remember a sage piece of advice from when I was growing up: never ask what’s inside the sausages you eat. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.
On the other hand, that was back in the 1980s, when meat from cows driven insane by a diet of sheep’s brains had made its way into the UK food chain, so maybe it’s not a good example. And yet, the disease did not infect any humans, so maybe it is - nobody was hurt, except for the demented cows and the millions of healthy ones that were butchered as a preventative measure, of course.
As for me, I’d rather eat a juicy slab of horse than a cow fed on brains any day. And if we’re honest about it, maybe that’s the choice we are increasingly going to face if we insist on consuming dirt cheap meat by the bucketload.