Horse Meat Scandal: Is There Really a Difference Between Eating a Horse and a Cow?


Why not eat a horse?

It’s a pertinent question these days. Recent revelations indicate that if you dined at Taco Bell, Burger King, or Ikea in the United Kingdom these past few weeks, little chunks of Seabiscuit are now swimming through your digestive system.

American and European consumers have reacted with shock and indignation: How dare they mix my dead cow flesh with dead horse flesh? The irony seems lost on most, but at the same time, this seems an ideal moment to more thoroughly interrogate the politics and taboos surrounding which animals we’ve designated as meal material.

Though Ikea has recalled its tainted meatballs, contamination in this trusted a brand has industry-wide implications. Tests reveal that 1% of Europe’s beef contains traces of equine DNA, and 19 countries are implicated in its proliferation. Horse meat was even found in food destined for school lunchrooms in Scotland. According to the New York Times, this fiasco significantly "[dents]" Ikea’s "homely Scandinavian" image, and does no PR favors for Nestle or other companies involved either.

"Horsegate" has yet to affect the U.S., but it’s certainly started a conversation. A trending L.A. Times survey asks: "Would you be upset if you learned you had eaten horsemeat?" A New York Post article expresses relief in finding that beef samples from nine major New York grocery stores tested "one-hundred percent free of horse meat." Most claim this relief stems from a desire to "know what you’re buying," but it’s hard to imagine such emphatic reactions if a beef burger was found to contain, say, chicken or salmon.

In fact, there’s a pretty clear line defining meat we’ve deemed culturally acceptable. It’s fine to eat cows, pigs, and fish, for instance. Horses, dogs, and cats? Not so much. Some of this is due to alleged health concerns. Much concerns historical attempts to devalue colonized cultures: what better way to dehumanize a population than by categorizing what they eat as "gross" or "barbaric?"

And although Newsweek’s Vickery Eckhoff warns of eating horses tainted with painkillers like phenylbutazone (a major concern in the Ikea fiasco), many chefs in France and Italy still regularly include the meat on their menus. Horse butchery is a legitimate career option in many places. It’s certainly an edible meat if treated properly, so why don’t we eat it?

I suspect it has to do with our cultural connection to horses. In books and movies, they’re treated as noble and loyal creatures, a sort of third-tier "man’s best friend." There’s a hypocrisy underlying the choice to treat cows and pigs as food, but horses and dogs as friends. Our biases make us overreact to issues like the Ikea fiasco, when in reality, there’s nothing in the "Western" cultural character suggesting that we shouldn’t eat cats, horses, dogs, hamsters, or bunny rabbits.

So the next time you step into your favorite burger joint, rest easy that the charred flesh you’re shovelling down your throat might contain traces of surprising and unexpected animals. And be OK knowing that there’s nothing in your cultural makeup that says this isn’t totally normal.

Perhaps restaurant owner Jean-Guillaume Dufour says it best: "I know horses are pretty and friendly and so on. But cows would be, too, if we let them."