A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Horsemeat Taboo

eat-a-horse-022713As the horsemeat scandal escalates around Europe, the question arises: Why is everyone so upset to discover that ground-up horses are in their burgers, pizza toppings and frozen lasagna? Don’t we all know by now that the animal foods we eat have stuff in them that’s far more alarming, indeed disgusting – like pink slime in your burgers and pus in your milk?

Some people say the reason they’re upset to discover they’re eating horses is because the food was mislabeled. But that sounds like they’re reaching for a rationale. For example, the U.K.’s Catholic Herald argues that it’s not a food scandal; it’s a labeling scandal:

People have falsely labeled horse as beef. This leads one to ask: can we trust anything we read on a label? So let us leave the equine angle to one side, and concentrate on what really matters, namely that there has been a huge conspiracy of deception in the food industry, and that is simply not acceptable, especially given our belief, up to now at least, that all our foods were meticulously labeled.

(The Catholic Herald then goes on to compare the media hype over horsemeat to other faux scandals like blaming the Pope for the ongoing child sex abuse horrors. Huh?)

But the uproar that’s sweeping Europe is not about labels; nor is it even about inadequate government inspection of the food industry. And it’s not the same thing as the pink slime revelations, either.

What it’s really about is the violation of taboos.

What it’s really about is the violation of taboos.

Every culture has its food taboos. Jews and Muslims won’t eat pigs. For Hindus in India, eating beef is taboo. Most Western countries are offended by people who eat dog. And in the UK, eating horses has become a no-no.

Charles Recknagel gets to the heart of it in a Radio Free Europe article, where he interviews a professor of biology in Germany:

According to Victor Meyer-Rochow, much of the outrage comes from people feeling they have been tricked into breaking a deeply felt cultural taboo or, more specifically, a food taboo.

Having studied the history of food taboos, he says every society has them, and that often their origins are lost in the mists of time. They range from ancient tribal beliefs in the power of certain animal spirits that must not be offended, to religious dietary laws that proscribe eating certain foods or combinations of foods because they are deemed unhealthy or unclean.

But they also include more informal rules regarding which animals a society regards as man’s natural companions and which are a food resource. Since horses have historically fallen into both those categories, their status is particularly complicated.

“Certainly, horse meat is eaten in many parts of Europe and in many parts of the world and there is no scientific reason why one should not consume horse meat,” says Meyer-Rochow.

Today, however, the norm in most European countries is to give horses almost the status of family pets.

That’s especially the case in the UK, where, as we wrote here, eating horse is sort of like eating dog – a huge culinary taboo.

Food taboos are about how we humans differentiate ourselves from people of other cultures.

(In fact, it’s a relatively recent one, whose origin lies in the fact that over the last 150 years, horses have come to be considered companions and partners, rather than simply resources. It’s also something of a fantasy in that the racing industry kills horses who don’t quite measure up, and simply bypasses the taboo by sending the carcasses to European countries where horsemeat is more popular.)

Food taboos aren’t really about the animals themselves – and even less about the food. They’re about how we humans view ourselves as members of a particular culture, and how we differentiate ourselves from people of other cultures. As Meyer-Rochow explains it:

“Any kind of food taboo unites people of a particular group and that makes them different from the others. So, by saying the horse is such a noble animal and we will not eat this meat, we elevate ourselves above those who treat the horse as if it were just a rabbit or something else.”

If that’s the case, the horsemeat scandal is a story with legs. The Brits will continue to be offended that the Europeans, from whom they’ve always tried to separate themselves, have tried to trick them into eating a taboo food. And they will continue to use this to differentiate themselves from the French (by whom they always feel culturally threatened).

The Romanians, meanwhile, will continue to feel victimized by the fact that much of the horsemeat can be traced back to them. (They already feel looked down on by Western Europeans.)

And we Americans who read the story will feel superior and “exceptional”, as usual, for not being Europeans. We’ll tell ourselves that we don’t have scandals like this (while doing our best to forget the pink slime and factory farm atrocities).

Food taboos help us believe that we are “not just animals”, that we have a higher nature, and that there are things “we humans just don’t do.” Meanwhile, it will be business as usual in the meat industry, which couldn’t care less about the animals it serves up.

Food is deeply embedded in every culture – social, national, ethnic and religious. And with so much war in their history, Europeans quickly succumb to focusing on what divides them. Cultural taboos are easy fodder for this.

At an even more fundamental level, food taboos help us believe that we are “not just animals”, that we have a higher nature, and that there are things “we humans just don’t do.”

The best way, of course, that we could demonstrate that to ourselves would be to embrace all the other animals as our kin, to develop a stronger empathy for them, and to act on that empathy.

Ultimately, the only way out of the continuing flood of scandals, all around the world, about what’s in the food supply would be a simple taboo against eating animals at all.