There’s been much made of the news that Tesco (amongst others) has been found to be selling beef burgers that contain horsemeat.
Given that I don’t eat meat, I’m not one of those affected. As I’ve said before, I don’t eat meat simply because I don’t like the way it tastes or its texture, not because I think eating it is immoral. But I know there are many who do think that; it’s a point of view I respect; and it’s certainly far more morally consistent than my own attitude.
Because there’s no logical reason why the thought of eating a horse should make me feel any more uneasy than the thought of eating a cow or a pig or a sheep. And yet it does, and deeply, deeply so.
Unsurprisingly, I’m enormously sentimental about horses in a way that I’m not about cows or pigs or sheep. I learnt to ride at a very young age, and I’ve spent a lot of time with, and become very close to, individual horses. Eating them would, for me, be akin to eating an animal member of the family. It’s not something I’d ever be able to bring myself to do.
And judging by the enormous amounts of media coverage the story has had and the public reaction, I’m clearly not the only person that feels a bit queasy about the whole thing.
Setting aside the question of morality, there’s a clear rational inconsistency in not objecting to eating a cow, but objecting to eating a horse. If you’re being logical, it’s a good alternative: horsemeat is low in fat, and high in protein and iron, and apparently tastes like a sweeter cross between beef and venison. Yet the UK appears to have a collective aversion to it – clearly, or it would already be readily available in restaurants and supermarkets across the country.
But we have a different history and relationship with horses from that which we have with other animals. They’ve been used for sport, and labour, and companionship – much as dogs have – in a way that just hasn’t happened with other animals that we consume. Maybe we’re over-anthropomorphising horses – or maybe that shared history is more powerful than we give it credit for.
Of course, the real issue in this particular saga isn’t that some people have ended up eating horse. It’s that they’ve bought and consumed a product in good faith, when that product was something totally different, and there was no way to know that its description wasn’t accurate – illegal, as well as immoral. For those whose religion precludes them from eating the animal meats found in the products, it must be particularly distressing.
And there’s a much bigger question raised by this incident than Brits getting sentimental about aesthetically pleasing creatures: that of the true and fair cost of food. For too long, we’ve not paid a price for food that reflects what’s involved in growing or rearing it. The prices demanded by consumers – and pandered to by supermarkets – don’t reflect the honest cost of humanely raising and slaughtering animals and providing meat for human consumption, and it’s not just meat: you only have to look at the state of dairy farming in Britain, or the manipulation of agricultural commodity prices on the world markets to see that food pricing is an extremely serious, moral, global problem, and one that needs to be addressed.
Still, it doesn’t make the thought of eating ponies any more palatable.