They eat horses, don’t they?

The furore over horsemeat turning up in processed foods is a very peculiar kind of food scandal, argues Joe Warwick, revealing as much about consumer attitude as industry practice


At the end of the current news cycle, when the so-called ‘horse meat scandal’ has finally galloped off into the distance, you’d like to think that we’ll be left with something more as its legacy than a series of punchlines for stand-up comedians along the lines of “I’m so hungry I could eat a Findus lasagne /  Bird’s Eye bolognaise / bowl of Ikea meatballs / Nestlé pasta dinner.”

I say the so-called horsemeat scandal because the first thing that we need to swallow with regard to this still unfolding crisis is that it’s about so much more than horsemeat. It’s about everything from fraudulent food processing practices possibly linked to arms dealers, lax regulations and a failure of controls within the UK and the EU, distorted and suspect supermarket and catering supply chains, slipping consumer confidence, and, if we’re talking socio-economics and education, the increasing impact lack of basic kitchen skills in a society were many are either too lazy, or claim to be too busy, to learn how to cook and so find themselves dependent on processed food.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the scandal is that we aren’t really that shocked. Already bruised by the greed of the banking collapse, and with BSE and the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease both spanning this side of the current Millennium, the British public have, for the most part, greeted the story as grimly predictable.

Joanna Blythman, whose latest book is called What to Eat, has been writing about the underbelly of the food industry since the 90s. “It’s no surprise to me that a recent survey found that only 37% of people trust the food and drink industry to sell safe food,” she says. “Horsegate takes us back 20 years to BSE, to the same intense consumer suspicion about food production.”

Across the Atlantic there is a similar skepticism in the wake of the news that 70% of the ground mince sold in US legally contained ammonia-treated “boneless lean beef trimmings”, AKA ‘pink slime’ or ‘soylent pink.’ Such is the public distrust of the food processing industry that when an unlikely story emerged earlier this year on National Public Radio about imitation calamari being manufactured from pig rectum, it quickly became an urban myth

You could say, with apologies to Jay-Z, we’ve got 99 problems but, all things considered, eating horsemeat, assuming it’s not being passed off as beef, ain’t one. Or at least it shouldn’t be one.

Horsemeat – although admittedly not the bute-tainted variety – is leaner and healthier than beef, with 25% less fat, 20 % less sodium, double the iron content and an unusually high Omega-3 fatty acid concentration, a crucial ingredient in fighting against heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s eaten across Europe from Switzerland, via the Netherlands and Belgium to Spain, not to mention across Central and South America, China, and Central Asia. It’s the not so secret ingredient in various processed foods at one end of the scale, and at the other is prized for its sweetness by gourmets in the regional specialities of such culinary superpowers as Italy and Japan.

There are various theories as to what fuels characteristic British, Irish, and by extension American and Australian, squeamishness towards its consumption. Most see the taboo built around a self-image that presents a culture of pet lovers, has horses anthropomorphised, seen more as companions and family members, as heroes in war and sport.

More interesting is the recent academic study in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology that suggests Anglo-Saxon eating habits, which, like those in mainland Europe, once included the wide consumption of horse, changed with the introduction of Catholicism.

Although eating horse, or to give its more sinister sounding Latin name, hippophagy, has never been kosher, there was a strong pagan tradition of slaughtering horses for rituals as much as for food (it’s one that apparently hasn’t died out completely, although, naturally, right thinking pagans and heathens are very much against the practice).

Historians have tended to pitch it as the Vatican versus the Vikings, with Pope Gregory III in 732, describing the slaughtering and eating of horse as a “filthy and abominable custom”, one that he sought to wipe out among pagan converts.

Others have argued that there may be more to the Pope’s campaign than an attempt to differentiate Christians from pagans, as he sought to preserve horses for warfare to protect Christian Europe from the better equipped, equestrian-focused Barbarian hordes that surrounded it. Beyond that it has been argued that, then as now, it was simply a case of economics, with horses a far less efficient animal when it comes to producing calories for consumption.

But whether it was case of a papal calling in of the cavalry, an attempt to establish a point of difference from pagans, or the logical conclusion to a more cost-effective approach to the farming of livestock, there are far fewer theories as to why, in contrast to the British and Irish, mainland Europe had enthusiastically returned to the eating horse by the 1800s.

During the Napoleonic Wars, French soldiers initially turned to horsemeat out of necessity, its growth in popularity saw it made legal in France as late as 1866, at the behest of nutritionists and social reformers.

The problem with the British, Irish, American and Australian take on the issue of consuming horsemeat is that it’s bound up with a strange hypocrisy, one that combines a disapproving shake of the head with the shipping carcasses to be processed and eaten elsewhere. Or at least that was the plan.

Although it’s now conveniently forgotten, horsemeat was widely consumed in the UK and the US during rationing and, because of its high iron content, was still being prescribed by doctors to pregnant British women in late 1950s.

Of course cultural identity is closely tied to what we eat, which perhaps explains the French response to the British reaction to what is a European issue, and after decades of decline in its consumption (partly thanks to a campaign fronted by Brigitte Bardot) to suddenly start eating more horsemeat.

There are signs too that the British may be about to, if you’ll pardon the expression in the circumstances, to climb off of their high horses on the matter. Curiosity about horsemeat on the back of the crisis has apparently created a demand and a new market for it. London restaurateur Oliver Peyton, who recently held a ‘nosebag’ supper club where he served horse tartare and horse sirloin at one of his restaurants, sees high-quality cuts of horse as finding a niche in the wake of the controversy. “It’s a rich, dense delicious meat,” he says. “Why shouldn’t we be serving it?”

Across the Atlantic it seems all you have to do is talk about putting horsemeat on your menu to generate the perfect PR storm; witness the reaction last year to the M.Wells horse tartar kerfuffle.

The fact of the matter is that horsemeat passed for human consumption has been off the menu in the US since 2007, following a ban on USDA inspections. In the meantime that hasn’t stopped 100,000 American horses being shipped every year to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

This practice now looks to be coming to an end with a new horse slaughtering plant scheduled to open in New Mexico in the next couple of months, allowing horse meat onto American menus again. Whether or not there’ll be any takers remains to be seen.

Because although when the media stampede has passed and we’re hopefully left with more than gags about ‘My Lidl Pony’ and checking the sell-by-date on a packet of Tesco burgers with an ‘Annnnnd they’re off’, illogical as it might be, for many, the horsemeat taboo will remain no laughing matter.


Joe Warwick co-founded The World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards as editor of Restaurant magazine, and is the author of Where Chef’s Eat and a Hedonist’s Guide to Eat London