The culture clash over the consumption of horse meat

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  • May 16,2016
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By REBECCA COOK When it comes to eating, I can be somewhat particular. I even border on squeamish when faced with foods I truly loathe. As one with the British sensibilities that lean towards racks of lamb with heaps of gravy, I knew that the gastronomic experience in Mongolia would be something to reckon with. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the grisly reality of my first meal with my host family in Ulaanbaatar. We sat down to dinner at the modest kitchen table and I was presented with a steaming bowl of something. On closer inspection that something appeared to be a stir fry of sorts on a bed of white rice. I exhaled in relief; I could manage this nicely. The stir fry itself consisted of potatoes, carrots and an abundance of petit pieces of meat. I was starving after my flight, where I had eaten nothing but small packets of heavily salted savories, so I dug in voraciously. After a few bites I began to chew contemplatively, trying to identify the source of the protein on my palate. I gave up and asked the father of my host family. “Horse!” he exclaimed with vigor and a brazen grin, “it’s delicious.” My fork fell from my fingers with a clatter and I sat back in my chair, staring at the accursed bowl. I brooded, silently hating myself for having thought it a delectable dish mere moments ago. Now my stomach swirled with guilt and revulsion. I later texted my sister about the meal and was met with outrage that dwarfed my own. She sent me a photo of a simpering white stallion, with the caption “don’t eat me”. I have since tried in vain to explain to my hosts why eating horse is fundamentally wrong, but when asked why, I couldn’t conjure a logical answer beyond “it’s murder” and “it’s cruel”, which they rightfully reasoned is applicable to other slaughtered livestock that I heartily consume. I was reminded of the utter outrage of 2013, when horse DNA was found in the burgers sold in a range of chief supermarkets in Europe. This horsemeat scandal was highly publicized and heavily criticized. A few of the products were found to contain so much as 100 percent trace amounts of the horse DNA. I realized that the peculiarity was that people’s acrimony was fixated on what their meat had been adulterated with, not the fact it had been adulterated. In Britain, the horse, if you have the means to possess one, seems to compete with the dog for our affections and the position of “man’s best friend”. Britons want to see horses cantering across finish lines with their jockeys atop or romping about in verdant fields, not being served up on a plate with a side of mushy peas. We seem to revere horses and retch at the thought of eating one, yet do not so much as flinch when a docile lamb is routinely butchered. So, why is one farm animal treasured while another is spurned? Ben Williamson, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) remarked that “one might question why one species is petted and the others ground up without a thought”. I wanted to identify the source of my horror at having eaten horse, and whether it was a valid reaction or not, considering those around me do not seem to give pause when either horse or sheep is cut up into their dinner. A 2013 study from researchers at Oxford University found that the roots of the taboo against the consumption of horse meat are rooted in the spread of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. It was often ingested during pagan rituals, and so became known as a “pagan food”. The initial public condemnation of eating horse meat indeed seems to have come from the Vatican in 732. Pope Gregory III issued a papal bull banning the process. Contrary to today’s aversion to the practice, this earliest decree was not inspired by veneration for the horse, but a desire to stamp out such pagan predilections. In spite of this, the impact of the decree on the English-speaking world appears to have been lasting, as public perception was altered to encapsulate distaste for horse meat consumption. Conversely, various cultures in history have tended to associate eating horse meat with penury as something only done by the lower ranks of society, and thus disparaged it, while Jewish people are unable to eat horse meat as it is not kosher. However, the greatest alteration in Western psychology has been the progressive association of horses as companions to man, not foodstuffs. As they accompanied men into battle and aided others in agricultural work, the notion of consuming them became distasteful and offensive. Affectionate renderings in art, such as the novel and film “War Horse” written by Michael Morpurgo, have contributed towards the status quo where horseflesh has sentimental significance. Marina O’Laughlin, a restaurant critic for the Guardian Weekend Magazine, commented that “the horse is seen as an extension of a pet, a domestic animal that we have a relationship with. And you don’t eat your pals.” This is certainly evident in the pet ownership surveys from the American Veterinary Medical Association, in which horses are listed. “The issue gets entangled in culture and human psychology, and increasingly, we think of horses as pets. Pets are family members, so eating a horse is borderline cannibalism,” remarks Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist, an academic who studies the relationship between humans and animals, and a professor of psychology as Western California University. When you see an animal as a pet, you humanize it to an extent and garner is with anthropomorphic qualities. Jenny Vermilya of the University of Colorado remarked that horses currently occupy “borderline spaces”. She elaborates that “horses have moved away from the large animal status and have become more identified with small animals. In other words, they are viewed less as a tool and more as a friend. However they are not fully transitioned yet. They exist in a border zone, where they are assigned qualities of both.” In spite of the public’s distaste for the consumption of horse meat in Britain, as of 2012, 8,426 horses were slaughtered for red meat in the five domestic abattoirs. While animal rights groups believe the process is brutal and needless, this is largely due to the appalling conditions of the transportation for horses to slaughterhouses, not due to the taboo of consuming them. Across the pond from the UK, the USA prohibits the sale of horse meat in several states, and in Illinois, the slaughter of horses for food is banned. The law reflects the national attitude in perceiving horse meat consumption as taboo, and therefore, there are no remaining domestic abattoirs. Stephanie Boyles Griffin, the Senior Director of Humane Society’s Wildlife Protection Program said of horses that “they are an iconic species … They represent the rugged individualism that is symbolic of the West. People want them to be free.” Ironically, this level of elevated protection for the species has led to many locations in the USA now crawling with at least 50,000 feral horses, a proliferation 22,000 above the acceptable level set by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Yet, a lack of interest in adoption coupled with the inability to cull the animals, has led to the BLM conducting helicopter aided round ups of the horses, who could potentially overgraze habitats, and placing them wherever they can. With such critical overcrowding, it begs the question of whether the facile solution would be to start consuming horse meat as so many countries already do. It has been found that humans have been hunting and consuming horses since the end of the last ice age, and they provided primal man with a key source of protein, before they were domesticated. Cave paintings have been discovered that depict man hunting horses. Horse meat was clearly a Paleolithic staple. A resurgence of its popularity was seen during the 19th century, after famines provoked government to license horse slaughterhouses, as well as during World War II, when the cuts of meat were favored for their low price. It is a supreme irony that nutritionists have deemed horse meat to be a far healthier source of protein than the likes of beef and its fellow common cuts of meat. Perhaps this revelation reveals the backwards nature of the taboo that pervades in the UK and USA. Horse meat is more lean and gamey than beef; it is higher in protein, lower in fat and contains more omega-3 fatty acids. Dan Barber, author of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food”, comments that “if you look at it just from an ecological standpoint – and for me, a gastronomic standpoint – I see a real logic in including horse meat on a menu. For any animal – or crop for that matter – we have to ask: what is its value in our environment, and our agriculture, and how can we maximize that value through culinary technique?” While many Westerners would balk at the notion of eating fried horse flesh for dinner, myself evidently included, it is regardless considered a delicacy in several countries. They logically equate a farm animal with a food source. In Japan, there is even a type of ice cream which contains raw horse meat, like sashimi. Meanwhile, in many European countries, the horse is seen as a cow with an elongated neck and no spots. Mongolia is no exception to this thinking. The Mongolian diet historically consists primarily of meat and dairy products, owing to the dry barren landscape that does not lend itself to agriculture. This concentrated diet of protein has long included horse meat as an essential component. I have been told by some local Mongolians that without meat, they do not consider the food a meal, for meat is the only real sustenance. Horse meat is heartily consumed in the winter, when my host family assured me that it helps to replenish their numb and frozen bodies with warmth. I have also heard that men eat the horse penis for its reputed contribution to virility, but perhaps that is just hearsay. In “Animal Farm”, George Orwell wrote, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” This seems equally applicable to what protein we want to eat at dinner as it was to Orwell’s depiction of communism. The horse is seen by many as an animal of elevated worth and value compared to that of its farmyard friends. This judgement appears to based more on sentiment than reason, based on the perceived significance of the horse and the contingent insignificance of a cow. There is ultimately little logic as to why Britons eagerly eat pigs and cows but not horse. It seems to be the result of arbitrary cultural traditions that result in us eating animals which we silently agree we do not like.