Thursday, 17 January 2013

In which horses in hamburgers aren't the real problem

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.


Rachael madeupoflittlethings said...

Well said! xx

lastnightidrank said...

Yes, very well said and very well balanced. Was in fact thinking of you in all the pony kerfuffle - I have eaten horse in Italy and haven't had a problem with it, but I’ve always suspected that was because I didn’t really ever ride or spend any time with horses so I don’t have as strong a perception of their personalities. Whereas, for exactly the opposite reason, I personally would find it very hard to eat dog or cat, even though I know there’s no rational moral argument as to why this should be more troubling than eating a cow or a pig.

nuttycow said...

Now, don't hurt me, but I *have* eaten horse. I was in Kazakhstan and, as we were being taken out for the national dish, it was expected that I at least gave it a try. It tasted a little like boiled beef.

Living on the continent, it's very difficult to get away from horse meat here. And, considering the fact that cheval is about half the price of any other meat they sell here, it's not surprising that the majority of Swiss delight in scoffing ponies.

Blonde said...

Rachel: Thank you! x

LastnightIdrank: Which is entirely reasonable: I think our sentimental attachments have an enormous bearing on how we treat types of meat. I'm with you - dogs and cats would also be on the list of inedible meats.

Blonde said...

NC: Which is entirely reasonable, I think. Morally, I can't pretend to have an argument against it. The fact that I find the thought of it distressing is entirely a personal reaction.

ohilondon said...

Honestly, I'd be cool with eating horse, were it not likely transported in absolutely horrendous conditions across Europe...

I fully agree that they have personalities but so too do pigs, cows, goats and the like. I'd still eat them all. But for me, this isn't about whether pony burgers are a horribly Un-British thing to have. This just supports what I have been harping on about for ages; we meat eaters need to think about WHERE are meat is coming from and where it is processed.

You think that it's okay that the meat is from the EU or North America and just processed in the UK? Nope. The UK have the best welfare laws from the beginning of a food animal's life to slaughter, and I only want to eat things that are brought up according to UK legislation, transported humanely and killed in accordance with those welfare laws. I want to support British farmers (particularly in these harder times), and I want to know what is in my burgers on THE PACK.

This lack of transparency has gone on long enough. Sad face.

Foodycat said...

I grew up with horses, I couldn't eat one. My husband didn't, he eats horse-meat quite happily. I'm totally with ohilondon on the treatment of the animals and current lack of transparency.

Marcheline said...

For me, it's all relative to the situation.

If you are wealthy enough to live in a country where you can make choices, then you eat what you choose to eat.

If you are desperate, and starving, you will eat whatever keeps you alive.

If you're living in a mansion in Beverly Hills, it makes no sense to eat someone's puppy. If you're the lone survivor of a plane crash on the side of a snow-covered, mountain, it makes no sense not to eat the pilot.

Leighton Cooke said...

Living in France, if I were a meat eater I guess that horse would be on the menu without my knowing it. The very thought of eating the neighbour's Carmargues scares me, although for all I know he probably does.

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