Why don’t we eat horse meat?

This week much of the news in the UK and Ireland has been dominated by the discovery of horse DNA in a number of popular supermarket beef burgers where a sample from a Tesco burger revealed that rather than being a beef burger, there was in fact 29% horse-meat.  Knowing the low quality of some of our supermarket food I am most surprised that there was 29% of any meat in their burgers which always seem to be composed of bread, fat and sawdust and which pale into culinary insignificance in comparison to meat purchased from farmers markets and local independent butchers.

Horse meat is found in Tesco burger scandal

However much people here may be disgusted by eat horse-meat, it is popular in several countries and if not central to their diet, is still on the menu of many of countries.  In Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Brazil in particular though eating meat is a very strong social taboo as well as with the Romani peoples of Eastern Europe.  This at first sight seems a little strange as it was originally Pope Gregory II in AD732 who proclaimed that eating horse-meat was a pagan and barbaric tradition.  Britain and America are not known for being strongly Catholic territories and yet France is and there the eating of horse meat is routine along with other parts of Europe.

There are several reasons for this both historic and cultural.   Not eating horse-meat was a good demarcating line between Christendom and barbarity.  God fearing communities spent their time tending their crops whilst those that attacked them often came on horseback, stole horses and often ate them too.  Somewhere like Mongolia where the whole culture and way of life revolved around horses.  That was often pretty much all they had.  They bred horses, they rode horses, in fact many were born on horses and if they had too many horses then they also tasted yummy too.

The devils horseman as they were sometimes known conquered everywhere from the Pacific to Poland.

The British Isles are famous if nothing for being green.  There is lots of rain, the ground is fertile and the grass is extremely green.  In some places it almost glows as if radioactive and very well suited for cattle.  Cows are much more productive, meat-wise than horses and they benefit from the higher quality grass than can be found in many of the dryer parts of the world, even in nearby Europe.  There is a widespread misconception on the blandness of traditional British food often lacking in spices or sauces and this is often for the simple reason that British beef is of very high quality and doesn’t need strong tasting disguises to make it pleasant to eat be it garlic, onions, curry or peppers.

Another reason that English speaking lands don’t eat horse is that they are seen as noble and intelligent animals.   Horses would work on farms and carry people and goods around the country.  In Britain in particular horses where vital to our military.   If the army and soldiers were seen as brave and noble then so were their horses, richly decorated often with silver trappings.

The Household Cavalry

Although horses are no longer used in front line duties, horses very much remain at the centre of ceremonial duties in the British Army.

Many horses were awarded medals for gallantry and distinguished service, some were even given military ranks as if they were officers and treated better than many poor civilians in a comfortable retirement.   They also suffered terribly as anyone who has seen last years film “Warhorse” will remember.    In America and Brazil, the land was colonised by cowboys who rode horses.  Horses meant everything to them, they were often a matter of life and death or their only trusted friend.  Who is going to eat their best friend?

Cowboy on horse with lasoo

This Cowboy is riding one horse whilst trying to lasoo another. Whatever his plans are, eating horse-steak is probably not one of them.

Napoleon found that when his army ran out of supplies, the soldiers who ate horse-meat became immune from scurvy and during the 19th Century there was a succession of severe famines across mainland Europe during which eating horses became the only way to eat meat.

Napoleon may have let his men eat horses but he loved his so much, the one possibly painted here Vizir, is on display at the wonderful Army museum in Paris. Having seen him myself, he looks in great condition for a 200 year old horse.

Even when things improved, the culture of eat horses became mainstream.  There were times in the 1920’s in Britain when some horse-meat was eaten and in parts of the USA during WW2.  Since then not eating horse as well as being a taboo has also long been a cultural form of chauvinism.  We don’t eat horses like those over the English Channel who also eat snails and frogs

Special legislation was passed in France to once more allow the butchery and sale of horse meat to the public. Cheval being French for horse, presumably the word where Cavalry comes from

There is no real reason why we shouldn’t eat horses when we eat cows, sheep and most eat pork as well as a variety of other mammals, birds and fish.   I myself wouldn’t go out and eat horse-meat but have no objection to it and if it were found out that I had inadvertently eaten it then I wouldn’t be too bothered.  If I was in France and I got served it in a restaurant I would try it but on the other hand it does all seem a little bit disgusting to me.  Which does seem rather strange I admit but then though I have no desire to eat horse, I would much rather eat it than dog which is popular in some Asian states or than slimy looking caviar, hideous looking lobsters or of course frog legs and snails.  Having said all that I do remember having sheeps ear in Jordan once when staying with some Bedouin and it tasted fine although it was discerning that it still looked like an ear.

As for the current uproar in the U.K., I say be upset because supermarkets can’t source their food properly.  I have eaten burgers from one of the supermarkets named but not from Tesco and their 29% horse burger but if I ate horse, it tasted fine.  Anyone who is that bothered should maybe become vegetarian or pay a little more like I try to and buy the best quality beef from a butchers or farm direct.  If you want to live dangerously, eat some horse but if you really want to live life on the edge, buy some Tesco branded anything.

Cartoon courtesy of The Sun newspaper. Horses disguising themselves as cows to avoid being taken slaughtered for Tescos beef burgers

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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47 Responses to Why don’t we eat horse meat?

  1. Great post, and interesting historical background. I’ve just learned something new.

    ‘There is no real reason why we shouldn’t eat horses when we eat cows, sheep and most eat pork as well as a variety of other mammals, birds and fish…’

    True! As a vegan-vegetarian, eating horsemeat, or indeed any animal, does not seem any more abhorrent to me than eating 100% beef. Why is it ok to eat a cow and not a dog or a cat? They are all animals, and all possess a nervous system – as do we. Plain biologically speaking, all creatures with a nervous system experience pain and fear, and therefore why is slaughtering and eating a cow any more humane than slaughtering and eating a human? That is my way of thinking, anyway. That is not to say that I think people should not eat meat, as it is down to personal choice and conscience. I ask, however, if meat eating is really so natural for the human species, why did humans contract CJD from eating beef, and HIV from monkey meat? A variety of diseases are passed on from animal to human, and herbivorous animals who are fed a carnivorous diet (such as cows eating offal), but are not passed on via the food chain to real carnivorous animals such as dogs (unless they eat their own species) as far as I am aware.

    Food for thought! 🙂

    Like

    • Just did a little research…

      It appears BSE has been discovered in dogs and cats according to this article:

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/dogs-face-risk-from-mad-cow-disease-1269772.html

      However, some other sources claim that dogs are resistant to it, but cats are not. I guess that is evolutionary, if that is the case. As far as I am aware, small cats do not typically kill cows, as the cow would be too large in comparison. However, a wild dog/wolf (which generally work together as a pack of wolves), would most probably try and attack a cow, whilst living in the wild.

      Like

      • That’s interesting. I wonder if cats could get it or could have got it in the past from the tinned meat which I can’t imagine would be very good quality. I do always wonder about cat owners who kiss and cuddle their cats, often fully aware that their moggy has just killed a poor innocent mouse and yet if they saw a teenager killing a mouse and bringing it to their back door step they would most likely call the police.

        Like

    • That’s very true. As soon as I heard of the scandal I understood the negativity of the food factory not having a high level of cleanliness but not because the burger contained a different sort of meat than was expected.

      I agree, it is up to everyone to make that choice. I’m not too bothered myself by the morality of eating meat but I understand those who do feel that way. I do though think it is “our” responsibility to rear the animals in as kindly and natural a way as possible though and not do things like making vegetarian animals eat processed meat based products.

      I eat meat as I don’t have to kill the animals, maybe it would be different if I lived in a different time and place and I had the exposure of doing so. Having said that not much gets me more mad than when something kills one of my garden plants. Life for all is what I say except unfortunately if I like eating it.

      I was going to mention the ultimate morality of eating other humans as opposed to ‘lower’ animals. While it wouldn’t be my first choice along with dogs etc I can’t say that I wouldn’t do so in some apocalyptic scenario if my life depended on it.

      I did have my one and only Rabbit in September. There was nothing wrong with it taste wise but there were so many bones, I didn’t enjoy it at all so never again At least you know where you are with a simple beef-burger, oh we don’t do we 🙂

      Like

      • harry edmondson says:

        You mentioned rightly that all animals used for food should be treated humanely however our own R.S.P.C.A has stayed surprisingly quiet on the issue of Muslim Killed animals.
        Once upon a time no-one would put up with this cruel and distressing way of slaughtering any animal but now we are all on edge in fear of upsetting the dangerously sensitive Muslims.
        I stood and watched this practice and felt faint and sick for hours after,believe me is is the most horrific thing I ever saw.
        On the other hand I was shown animals slaughtered humanely, the animal was rendered unconscious first and from death to dissection in less than fifty seconds,truly amazing however I still felt ill but i am certain that animal suffered far less than the first.
        Their was a rocking plate with a half moon blade about two foot long,the lamb was pushed onto the plate which obscured its sight of the swinging blade,the plate dipped and the throat of the lamb came in contact with the blade cutting its throat,after which the animal made some sickening choking noises as its lungs rejected the mass of blood running down its throat,the eyes of the animal showed the full trauma of this disgusting
        practice,these are then pulled one side to bleed out while a Muslim says a ritual prayer
        over it.
        This is how they kill their animals according to their religious doctrine and it matters not that this was at one time against our laws as we are changing them to suit all religions and ethnicity to our detriment.

        Like

  2. harry edmondson says:

    I think this article misses the whole point!, the fact that something is in our food we did not choose to eat is!.
    The person who breaks the rules in a disscriptive way would not have any qualms about putting diseased meat in products to make even more money.
    This will come back to bite us when people start dying of un-pronouncible diseases such as Bovine Spongyform Ensepalopathy or Kroyfeld Jacobs Disease.

    Just how long were we eating animals fed with animal protien Scrapey before they decided to ban
    the practice.
    The food industry inspectors should ban all imports now because its not what we know its what we don’t know that is the problem.
    I would also ask for these Eastern block countries to have international inspectors after the Bernard Mathews episode and now this.
    Romanians will admit that they are crook’s and pickpockets,its their way of life and they seem proud of it.
    As for the rest! poverty and poor living standards dictate how they behave then add to this the
    Russian Mafia who control massive sections of this industry and many others.

    Like

  3. yepiratehere says:

    Best article/post I have read on what is actually a very important topic.
    I am personally am puzzled/bemused/annoyed by the limitations on our diet. We could and should be eating reindeer easily – they could be eating it as a staple in Scandinavia too but don’t as it is absurdly overpriced, who knows why as they cost less that cattle to rear per head. Then there is camel meat – which would do really great for 3rd world economies, as well as ostrich and rhea, and all of those are far healthier than anything we have on the table.

    Like

    • Thanks. I agree. There is no end of different meats to eat. As much as people like eating fruits and vegetables from around the world then why don’t we all eat ostrich, kangaroo, llama and camel. I must say I am surprised about reindeer being expensive there.

      I myself have recently taken a fancy to venison and I was watching a show about a hunter in Northumberland who in order to preserve red squirrels, goes round shooting greys and selling them to restaurants!

      Like

      • argylesock says:

        In my opinion the best reason for avoiding those exotic meats is their food-miles cost. If in a place where those meat aren’t exotic, because they’re local, I’ll eat them.

        Like

        • I do the same and try to extend it to fruit and veg also. I am happy to eat Spanish tomatoes if I am in Spain but not in England. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to eat British beef in Egypt but I would try Camel.

          In fact to be honest I don’t get why we import so much meat. I am sure New Zealand lamb is delicious, in fact I know it is but why send it half way around the world to us in a country that is also covered in sheep and with an almost identical climate. The same for Danish bacon, it is nice but I can barely find British bacon.

          Like

          • argylesock says:

            I’ve forgotten why NZ lamb is such a success when imported to Britain; but I think it’s to do with the economies of scale that farmers enjoy over there. That’s another topic for my ever-growing lists of future blog posts.

            As for Danish bacon, I think that’s because Danish pig farmers (and others on the Continent) were able to save money by using sow stalls. Cruel confinement of the sow for 4 months per litter, 3 litters/year. Sow stalls have been illegal in Britain since the early 1990s (hope I got that date right) and they became illegal across the whole EU, coming into force on 1 Jan 2013. So continental pig farmers are now obliged to comply with the same welfare standards our UK pig farmers have.

            There’s an ongoing problem of fraud, in which pigmeat produced on the Continent by using sow stalls is still being imported here. I’m watching that story on The Pig Site and elsewhere, blogging about it when there’s news.

            Like

  4. perthians says:

    Totally agree, not much different from beef I’d imagine 🙂

    Like

  5. What a unique post! Very interesting. It makes sense, the Mongols were “savages” and therefore the British would find their custom of eating horses barbaric. Yes, horses are noble and intelligent animals! Makes me wonder what the big deal is about not eating dogs, yet Asian countries will? Same theory? And the French eating pigeons….fascinating.

    Like

  6. Emmy says:

    lol i was asking the same question to my
    husband yesterday. Glad I read this one. Love your sense of humour 🙂

    -em

    http://www.minimomlifecapacity.wordpress.com

    Like

  7. Interesting post. I had the opportunity to eat horsemeat in Holland and, to my surprise, I couldn’t do it. Why this should have been an exception, considering some of the other things I ate during my travels, was always a mystery to me.

    Like

  8. Helen says:

    Thank you for liking my post – it was a bonus to be led to your blog. I have friends that are interested in horses so will share.

    Like

  9. Very interesting history lesson, Stephen. I confess I’m very boring when it comes to meat. Horse-meat has no appeal at all and neither does kangaroo, crocodile, camel, emu or witchetty grubs. Or any other kind of grubs, come to think of it! I also don’t intentionally eat babies of any kind–the idea of milk-fed veal is possibly more horrible than horse-meat! I’m not too bothered about other people eating horses in theory but it does seem wrong somehow.

    Like

    • Thank-you! It does seem to be an issue that we all kind of agree on in that though we have nothing against others eating it and can’t think of a good reason, we probably wouldn’t eat horse ourselves. It would be interesting to get the perspective of someone in Asia who would be happy to eat horse-meat but may not want to eat another sort of meat such as beef or chicken.

      Like

  10. Lori C. says:

    Interesting post. First, a disclaimer. I am a vegetarian and a horse owner. I also follow the horse slaughter news pretty carefully. One reason I am against horses as food is that all the slaughterhouses in North America work the same way that cattle slaughterhouses work–using a captive bolt. Horses are quite intelligent and sense the danger and with long necks are agile enough to move away and avoid contact where it would be most effective. So it’s perhaps even more inhumane than the slaughter of other animals. Secondly, we treat our horses with a boatload of medicines that are toxic to humans. I could give my horse a large dose of phenylbutazone (a pain killer), dewormer, ulcur meds, etc. today and then auction him off to the kill buyer tomorrow. He’d be someone’s toxic lunch by next week.

    Like

    • Hi Lori, thanks for your great comment. It’s good to hear from someone in the industry with professional insight. I think the horsemeat scandal in the UK was initially due to the dislike of eating horse which then shifted into food sourcing and hygiene in food factories before settling on worries about the drugs you mentioned that many horses are treated with. Especially when the meat can’t be properly traced if it crosses borders during processing.

      I think what you say about horses being intelligent is the key reason we don’t eat horses. By and large sheep, cows and even pigs don’t appear to exhibit intelligent attributes in the same way as horses do. They are free-spirited and sensitive. Thanks again for your comment.

      Like

  11. What most writers miss in this story is, why now. Apparently Romania has outlawed the use of horses for transport but only recently been enforcing the law, so suddenly there were a lot of dead dobbins in that part of the world – someone clearly saw a way of unloading it on unsuspecting consumers. As a vegetarian, this story makes me a bit smug, but it is worrying how many stories o fraud and mislabellign are now appearing. Good news for local farmers. Maybe British consumers will start to realise the real price of food and begin to buy local. Dream on…

    Like

  12. neelkanth says:

    SO MEANINGFULLY WORDED.

    Like

  13. acairfearann says:

    Being both a horse-person and solidly Anglo-American in my view of horses (which you described so very well), I’d have a hard time eating a horse. I am quite happy to eat beef, pig, deer, goat, poultry, rabbit, squirrel…but not horse. I also draw the line on predatory mammals. Why we have that pyschological hang-up but not the same hang-up on fish is curious.
    My particular objection to the horse-meat on the market is that, if it is coming from North America, where essentially no horses are raised for human consumption, the high levels of drugs, wormers, steroids, etc which are going to be in it. Nearly every single item in the most basic medicine cabinet in a horse barn says ‘Not for use on animals destined for human consumption’. Even the standard fly sprays and de-wormers are not things one wants to eat. The standard painkillers of bute and banamine, which are fine for horses, are potentially toxic to people. The likelihood of a horse in a ‘kill auction’ having had bute is fairly high…

    Like

    • Thank-you for your comment. I do agree.

      For some reason I am hung up on fish. I don’t know how anyone can eat them or why would they. People are land mammals 🙂 I put them in the same category as snails, crabs, frogs legs and chicken feet. Though I would still eat them all above horse, well maybe not snails at least not knowingly!

      Like

  14. L.J. Popp says:

    In Japan, horse meat is a delicacy. It’s a specialty in Kyushu, especially the Mt. Aso area where horse riding is also popular. They sometimes eat it raw, as basashi! By the way, thanks for visiting my blog. You can read about some of my crazy food adventures (like eating raw horse on accident), in the travel section.

    Like

    • Thank-you for your comment. I enjoyed your blog and will be going back as I do like crazy travel adventures! That’s interesting about Japan. I haven’t heard of anyone eating horse raw except around Mongolia. I do like eating meat but not unless it is thoroughly cooked. Whenever I see cookery shows where chefs present almost blue beef it always looks disgusting to me. I know it is meant to destroy the taste but I like my meat well done!

      Like

  15. JT Easy says:

    As a kid, there was a burger stand outside of Indianapolis that we all liked. After a few years, it was discovered that they had been serving horsemeat. Most of my friends were upset and/or grossed out; I thought it was pretty good myself. Thanks for the post on it.

    Like

    • I’m sure if I ate it and liked it, I wouldn’t have too many problems with it. I know in the U.K. in the ’70s there were cases of Chinese and possibly Indian takeaways of using domesticated house pets like cats and dogs in their food.

      I’m glad you liked my post, thanks for popping by.

      Like

  16. Diane Tibert says:

    I don’t eat much meat (the occasional pork chop and bacon), but even when I did eat a lot, I would never consider eating horse meat. The way I look at it here in Canada is that if a man won’t eat his best friend (dog), then why should people eat woman’s best friend (horse)? Personally, I think horses are too intelligent to eat. They are our pets, our friends.

    That’s the emotional side of not eating horse meat. The logical side of my brain tells me not to eat the meat because of the poisonous substances given to horses which are fine for them, but not for humans. But then this is why most meat turns me off: too many chemicals used. I haven’t eaten store-bought chicken in a few years. I grow my own. I can’t imagine eating all the stuff they pump into the chicken to grow it quickly.

    We do own a pony (which was rescued–that’s RESCUED–from the meat factory), and I hear a lot about horses being stolen, bought for cheap or bought at the auction and sent to the meat factory in Quebec (from your post now I know why Quebec (French) and not other provinces though I think one reopened/opened in the Prairies). These horses were given whatever medication was needed for their health, medication that is dangerous for human consumption. The majority of this meat is not eaten in Canada; it’s sent overseas to Europe.

    So at the heart of this, Europeans are eating gentle ponies who were once the first time rides for many little girls; at the stomach of this they’re eating toxic meat, poisoned by substances not fit for human consumption.

    Meat eaters don’t get an easy ride; you take your chances with every scrap of ‘industry’ produced meat you put in your mouth. This is why I eat more vegetables and fruits now than before; it’s not that I don’t enjoy a good roast of pork, but my brain wonders what else is in the meat besides pig. All I can say is good luck to the horse eaters. On the positive side, horse meat consumers may never get worms. 🙂

    Thanks for the informative article. It provides an interesting look at why some cultures will eat horse and others won’t.

    Like

    • I can relate to everything you say here. Sometimes you can even see in the colour of the meat the difference between an industry produced meat in a supermarket and one farmed, produced and slaughtered locally.

      There have been supermarket bosses over here stating that they wouldn’t eat their own meat as for the price it is sold, how can anyone know what is in it or expect it to be of good quality.

      In Britain and the North America, Beef, Pork and Chicken is so plentiful and good quality that apart from profiteering, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to eat horse here or for retailers to sell contaminated products. In the U.K. a tiny number of horse slaughterhouses exist but they sell to mainland Europe. You’d kind of think that if they like eating horse and we don’t, why don’t all the beef eating countries just concentrate on beef and let the countries that like horse and beef do their own things. It just seems silly us in the U.K with all our cows, killing the animals and then sometimes transporting them across 4 or 5 countries to be processed and then brought back to be sold.

      Thanks for your marvellous comment.

      Like

  17. Interesting. I’ve always felt it’s only a matter of time before our survival instinct outweighs the cute and cuddly. In a couple of centuries this discussion will seem quite quaint. Thanks for leading me to your writing, I’ll be back to visit often.

    Like

    • Thanks Sal. You could be on to something here. Given that most inner city kids don’t know of the connection between the meat they eat and animals in farms.

      Also many of the parts of Europe that do eat horses only do so after extreme famine and poverty. It took a lot of campaigning for the slaughter of horses to be legalised.

      If the population keeps growing and meat becomes a scarce commodity, maybe we will all have to re-assess what is edible to us.

      Like

  18. It’s odd that the people who wouldn’t eat horse (or beef, lamb, pork for that matter) turn a blind eye to what’s in those cans they give to their pets. Even vegans are quite happy keeping dogs and cats for whose maintenance other animals are slaughtered.
    I sometimes think us humans are on autopilot – doing things just out of habit or social conditioning, without ever bothering to think things through.

    Like

    • Lori C. says:

      I totally agree, Aristotle. People are on autopilot and rarely give a second thought to the way they live and the things they eat. If they grew up eating it, it must be right. I wish more people did think about what they eat and why they eat it; what they need in terms of food–especially protein; the ramifications of their choices.
      BTW: I know some vegans who have veganized their dogs and cats. I’m an almost vegan, and I do feed my dogs and cats a fairly commercial diet that includes animal parts, but I do think about it and I have considered alternatives.
      Think, people…just think…

      Like

      • Thanks for commenting Lori. I think people owe it to themselves and to the planet to consider where their food comes from and if they have to eat certain foods (and I do eat meat though not a lot) then to source it from sustainable, equitable and if possible local sources.

        Like

    • That is an interesting addition to the conversation. I often wonder how people who are clearly animal lovers cope with having pet cats who kill millions of birds every year. In the U.K. much of the USA domestic cats are the main cause of the decline of wild bird numbers.

      Yet most cat owners I know would never kill birds themselves and would go out and shout at children to throw stones at birds or other creatures.

      Like

  19. the tow path says:

    I lived in France for 2 years and have eaten horsemeat. It was not horrible but it was something I don’t need to do again. The mental aspect is the creepy part.

    Like

  20. Pingback: Eggs and bacon: no more battery cages, no more sow stalls | Science on the Land

    • Your article was a real eye opener. I never even realised why I had grown up with so much hype about Danish bacon and yet not British or even Irish bacon. Now I know, I will make extra effort to make sure my spending goes to that I want it to. Animal welfare has always been my main consideration and I’d rather buy less but better sourced meat than lots of meat with poor hygiene, animal welfare or air miles.

      Like

  21. msdulce says:

    I love this post, and aside from the concerning issue of food mislabeling, I completely agree! I’m vegetarian, but I do take a bite of my husband’s dishes when we travel (kangaroo in Australia, guinea pig in Ecuador, etc), and carnivorous friends are always disgusted. It’s interesting where people draw this line in the sand. Intelligence? Pigs are some of the smartest animals around. Considering them pets? Americans eat rabbit, which are ridiculously cute and loving. It has always confused me. Thanks for all the interesting history, too!

    Like

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