Imagine heading down to your local butcher for a few pounds of grassfed beef, and sitting right next to your favorite strip steak is a pile of butchered horse-steaks & horse-burgers. Would you you be intrigued or disgusted? Why?
On November 18th, President Obama signed a bill that will lift a a 5-year old ban on funding horse meat inspections. These bans wiped out all horse slaughterhouses in the US, but some say they’ll open back up and be running as soon as next month.
For the majority of mankind’s early existence, wild horses were hunted as a source of protein. Yet, if you live in most English-speaking countries, the idea of eating horse for dinner is taboo. Food avoidances and taboos have historically been based on religion, or have functioned to demonstrate social status differences. Our aversion to horsemeat probably started back in 732 A.D. when Pope Gregory III said that eating horses was a ‘filthy and abominable custom’. His condemnation of horsemeat consumption was directed toward suppressing Germanic pagan ceremonies. The effects of this prohibition by the Roman Catholic Church have lingered, and horse meat prejudices have progressed in the West from taboos, to avoidance, to abhorrence. On top of the traditional religious based taboo, there’s also sentimental reasons for not eating horse. Show horses have long been pets and companions, and are graceful, beautiful animals that will gently eat a carrot out of your hand.
But horsemeat is not taboo everywhere. In China, well over a million horses are used for meat each year. In neighboring Kazakhstan, the nomadic culture turns more than half a million horses into meals such as their traditional sausages, and in Mongolia you can find horsemeat at most grocery stores. The French prefer the yellow-marbled meat of older horses, the Belgians eat smoked horse for breakfast, and some regions of Italy like fatty horsemeat. Our neighbors in Quebec can find horsemeat in the grocery store right next to beef & pork, and our friends in Mexico are the second largest producers of horse meat in the world. In Japan, they even eat horse sushi!
In light of the lifting of the US ban that eliminated domestic horsemeat, there’s lots of debating between the pro-slaughter & anti-slaughter folks. The anti-horsemeat lobby note that horses are poor converters of grass and grain to meat compared with cattle, and that horsemeat may be loaded with dangerous chemicals (a fact disputed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency). They also say that slaughtering horses is inherently inhumane because it can’t be done without undue suffering.
Pro-slaughter activists argue the horse slaughter prohibition was an example of a federally sanctioned food taboo and a misguided disaster that had unintended consequences, including an increase in horse neglect and the abandonment of horses. A June study by the GAO concluded that the slaughter of American horses, once a $65 million a year industry, didn’t stop because of the ban, but simply shifted to Mexico & Canada, where horses fetch less than half the price.
Is horsemeat healthy? According to the USDA nutritional database, roasted horsemeat has a broadly similar nutritional profile to a broiled top sirloin steak, with the notable exception of having about half the saturated fat of the beef, but over seven times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.
So what does horse meat taste like? A 2007 Time magazine article about horse meat brought in from Canada characterized the meat as sweet, rich, superlean, oddly soft meat, and closer to beef than venison. Andrew Zimmerman, host of Travel Channel’s Bizzare Foods, said he prefers horse and donkey to most grass-fed beef. According to Ryan Poli, executive chef of the forthcoming Travernita restaurant, “the meat has a very nutty and mineraly quality that I adore. I think that anyone with an open mind would want to make it a regular part of their meal.”
If your meat market starts carrying horsemeat, will you be buying some?