The Brits have their knickers in a knot (“knickers” in the U.K. = panties) over the fact that bits of horses have been showing up in their burgers. Bits of pig, too, which is especially alarming to the Jewish and Muslim community.
Lots of people are upset at the idea of eating a horse, while they don’t mind eating a cow, sheep or pig. But as the shocking news hit the headlines this week, neither the British public nor its punditry were able to explain exactly why they were so upset. Why is it so OK to eat a cow, but not a horse?
In some countries, including across Europe and in South America and East Asia, horses are widely on the menu. With the near-extinction of Bluefin tuna, some sushi chefs in Japan are even replacing tuna with horse.
All cultures have certain nonhumans who are considered part of the in-group: like dogs and cats in many parts of the West, and cows in India. Pigs were once considered sacred to the Goddess in the Middle East, which is why they were off-limits as food. (When the Goddess was banished by the new male religions, the pig taboo persisted, but with the priesthood explaining that this was now because they were “unclean.”)
So, why the squeamishness in Britain (and equally North America) against eating horses? Many people put horses in the same in-group category as dogs and cats. (Except that in the 1940s, when rationing was in force during and after World War II, horsemeat quickly appeared in butcher shops without most people thinking twice about buying it.) Generally speaking, though, there’s a much closer relationship to horses as individuals than to cows, pigs, chickens, etc.
Some people suggest that it’s because we don’t talk about eating cow and pig, but rather beef and pork – and that people are put off by eating “horse.” Maybe, but if so, then what about chicken and turkey and fish?
Perhaps, in part, it’s because we give most horses names, but not most cows. Dr. Roger Mugford, an English animal psychologist who’s also a farmer, tells the BBC that it’s because we’ve always had a closer, more personal relationship to horses.
“Horses helped out in warfare. There have been huge sacrifices alongside riders in historic battles. And there are sentimental depictions like War Horse … And before railways, horses were the main means of transport. You don’t eat your Aston Martin.”
But if any of this is the case, the irrationality goes yet further. After all, if we cared that much about horses, we wouldn’t treat them the way we do on the race course. We wouldn’t breed them for racing and destroy the ones who don’t quite measure up. (Or perhaps we would … after all, we destroy homeless pets and breed more in puppy mills.)
Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, points out that while we tend to protest our love of animals, the cold facts say otherwise:
Americans donated about $300 billion dollars to charitable organizations and assorted good causes in 2009. However, only 2 percent of these funds ($6 billion) went to all of America’s environmental and animal-related organizations combined. And less than a third of these funds went toward animal protection and advocacy.
Now, contrast money we spend each year to protect animals with the amount we spend on killing them.
First, there is the $76 billion that American spend on hunting and fishing-related expenses (guns, ammo, travel, etc.). Then throw in the $160 billion we fork out for the flesh of cows, pigs, chickens and poultry. Finally, add in the $70 billion we spend to eat creatures that live in the sea, and it looks like the animal death industry comes in at slightly over $300 billion a year. (Note: This does not include money earmarked for other consumptive uses of animals, such as pest control or biomedical research.)
In short, each year Americans spend 150 times more money on killing animals than on saving them.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, political editor James Kirkup, an “ardent” carnivore, admits to having a profound respect for vegetarians.
Their position is at least thought-out and usually a result of consideration and conscious choice.
No, it’s meat-eaters in denial who annoy me, the people who close their eyes to the process that put meat on their plate. It’s their indifference to the reality of meat that allows the production of cheap, horrible, badly- and even cruelly-produced meat and (shudder!) – “meat products”.
As part of that general hypocrisy, the horse industry in the U.K. kills enormous numbers of horses every year – and ships them off to other countries to be devoured.
For the moment, then, like most of us on this side of the pond, Brits will continue to bridle at chowing down on horse.
Meanwhile, as the Great British public continues its soul-searching, thousands have galloped off to Twitter with their deep thoughts on the matter:
Has anyone tested Tesco‘s veggie burgers for uniquorn yet? (sorry) — Barry Pace (@pace)
29% of the meat content in Tesco’s hamburgers turns out to be horse?! No wonder they gave me the trots! — Unnamed Insider (@Unnamedinsider)
Shocking news. Tesco own brand value hamburgers have been found to have traces of real MEAT in them. — Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1)
Horse burgers: I canter believe it. Whinny they going to withdraw the product? I bridle at the very thought. — Stuart Heritage (@stuheritage)
Best burgers recipe. Mince meat, garlic powder, paprika, fresh herbs, an egg and fine diced stallions. I mean…. Scallions.. #horseburgers — Cry Monster Cry (@crymonstercry)
HSE confirm that all who ate #horseburgers are in a stable condition — James Doorley (@JamesDoorley)
“Two Tesco burgers please.. hold the dressage” — John Masterson (@theotriangle)
I got fired from the meat factory because I got an e-mail about a delivery of horse meat and I marked it as spam. — John Brennan (@ActingAnEejit)
If you can bear more, just go to The Guardian.