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Neigh-sayers: why we won’t agree to eat a dead horse

The horse meat scandal seems to be more about the taboo issue of eating our pets than actual health concerns. Fredrik von Erichsen/AAP

Imagine the following scenario. You go into your local sandwich shop for lunch and order a roast beef on rye with a dash of mustard. As you bite into the sandwich you notice something is not right. The bread does not taste quite like rye. In asking the shop owner you find out they have run out of rye bread and gave you sourdough instead.

Now image a different scenario. As you bite into your sandwich you notice that the beef does not taste quite like beef. On enquiring with the shop owner you are casually informed that they have run out of roast beef and used horse meat instead.

There is nothing wrong with horse meat. Just like sourdough is a reasonable substitute for rye, horse meat is a reasonable substitute for beef. Horse meat is eaten in many countries (more than 4.7 million horses are consumed each year) – it tastes sweet, tender and is low fat, so good for you as well. Even in the UK horse meat was still widely consumed as recently as the 1950’s.

So what’s all the fuss about horse meat contamination in Europe?

Many commentators have put it down to a breach of human trust, but this just cannot wholly explain the outrage. Yes, we like manufacturers to be honest in their labelling, but generally it’s only when mislabelling is likely to cause harm that people get into a panic. In this case, the horse meat was declared safe to eat by authorities and it’s not illegal.

Yum? Simone A. Bertinotti/Flickr

I would venture to say that something far less rational is at play here.

Outrage over “inappropriate” meat consumption is nothing new. The Japanese have been copping it for many years over the consumption of whale meat, and perhaps even more contentious, the consumption of dolphins. It’s not hard to feel a little uneasy, upset, and even angry when thinking about the consumption of dog meat in Taiwan, guinea pigs in Peru, or when hearing a reference to pigeons as “the other white meat”.

Although the adventurous among us may happily gnaw on the well-roasted leg of a guinea pig, mostly people are noticeably precious about which animals they will eat and which ones they will not. Our response to “inappropriate” meat is not just intellectual disagreement, more commonly it is visceral disgust, and perhaps a good dose of anger and contempt.

So what is it that makes us all fidgety about meat consumption? I suggest there are three factors that play into our decisions (read: gut-level, irrational reactions) over whether to eat meat or not.

Neoteny, otherwise known as the cuteness of a particular animal, often plays a powerful role in whether we feel conflicted over the consumption of their meat. For example, most people find it more difficult to think about the source of spring lamb or veal (think Norman from the movie City Slickers) than they do mutton or beef.

More powerful still are purity concerns linked to disgust. For example, most people would feel sick over the consumption of rats, ferrets, bats, possums or just about any kind of insect. Indeed, the Bible mandates that these animals, along with a long list of others, are “unclean” and not to be eaten. It also mandates, along with the Torah and the Koran, that pork is unclean, yet a good many of us appear to have overcome that taboo. Purity of meat may also be established through particular practices, such as preparation in line with Kosher or Halal laws.

The recent scandal has left many diners feeling a little squeamish. Evan Leeson/Flickr

It must be acknowledged here that disgust is not aroused in service of disease avoidance in these cases, and purification rituals have little to do with health concerns. Disgust and purity concerns appear to be operating much more randomly than that.

I would suggest the most powerful reason that we get all tied up in knots about which animals can and cannot be eaten and which ones we do and do not eat is that animals are in fact one of us. Homo sapiens are primates and the line between what makes “us” different from “them” is pretty much impossible to nail down. Anybody who thinks hard about this problem (for example Peter Singer) generally fails to find the fault line along which to carve nature at its (morally relevant) joints.

It is perhaps not all that surprising, then, that most people have the same reaction to the thought of eating human meat as they do to most other “forbidden” meats – disgust, anger, contempt.

So what of horses? Those dependable, faithful, human companions, who drag our carts, pull our buggies, and run our races? Why not eat them? I would suggest that all the panic over horse meat has little to do with health concerns or consumer trust – it is because horses are considered companions and pets.

As with dogs, the thought of eating horses ruptures the flimsy moral boundaries we draw between those things we are happy to slaughter for food and those things we are not.

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