A Horse’s Thoughts on the Horsemeat Scandal

Over here in the UK, there’s been an extended brouhaha after many cheap TV dinners, known as ‘ready meals’ locally, were found to contain large amounts of horse instead of the promised beef. Some of the meals contained 100% Pure Horse.

Nobody knows how long the horse has been there. It only came to light because a branch of the Irish Government performed some DNA tests and announced the presence of our equine friends in mid-January. And it’s been in the news since then.

I think it’s worth discussing here on [adjective][species] because it relates to our relationship with animals. Also, I’m a furry horse, so I get asked how I feel about horses as a source of meat.

The short answer: I feel ambivalent. The longer, more entertaining answer: I’m fascinated how this scandal has come about, been reported, and—most importantly—how my furry friends have reacted, often wildly differently depending on their relationship with their species of choice.

It’s easy enough to understand how horse ended up labelled as beef: the European Union, which includes the UK, is an open market and goods (including meat) can mostly be traded freely. In the UK, our big supermarkets compete in a desperate race-to-the-bottom to be the cheapest, regardless of quality. They advertise that a pint of milk is 1p or 2p cheaper. A tin of tomatoes will cost me 30p, but they’ll be unripe. I can buy a mass-produced chicken for £2, whereas an ethically-raised one the same size will cost me about £15. The drive for a lower price drowns the desire for a higher quality.

It’s the same drive that sees high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) everywhere in the USA. HFCS is sweet and cheap. Nevermind that alternatives taste superior, or that HFCS is metabolised in a way that reduces feelings of satiety: people want to pay less for their soda.

Horsemeat is perfectly legal in the UK. It’s also about half the cost of beef and, apparently, is indistinguishable in flavour. The meat used in ready meals is largely sourced from outside the UK, because it’s cheaper. And so horse has found its way into beef products via suppliers competing for supermarket business, where the strongest criterion for success is price.

The British press, for their part, have been competing to see who can generate the most outrage. The tabloids have dealt in the usual xenophobia, while the broadsheets look for something—anything—that allows them to be upset without dabbling in racism. Is there even a problem with horsemeat? After all, it is routinely eaten, if a bit déclassé, in France and elsewhere to no apparent ill effect. So the UK newspapers have decided that horsemeat is unsafe because UK horses are sometimes treated with a painkiller that isn’t safe for human consumption… eliding over the fact that the ready meal horses are sourced from elsewhere, and that there is no problem with such chemicals elsewhere in the horse-consuming continent.

I’m sure that there are countless other examples of cross-border intrigue and scandal all over the EU, and I’m sure they seem as equally quaint to disinterested observers.

Some will argue that there is an ethical issue with horsemeat, that it’s wrong to eat companion animals, or that horses have special capacity for pain, or fear, or some other form of suffering. These arguments are valid—moral arguments always are. However anyone who hesitates at horse yet pounces on pig—the porcine are at least the equal of equine in intelligence and companionship (if not HP)—might politely be called self-contradictory.

Yet the fact remains that horses are special for many people, including many furries. The furry identity is usually attached to a specific species (or two), and some horse furs have a special affinity for their pony pals. For rhetorical purposes, I’m going name such hypothetical horse hangers-on as Gullivers, after Swift’s eponymous traveller who ultimately shuns human habitats for exclusive equine esteem.

Altivo, one of our favourite commenters here at [adjective][species], is a Gulliver. I think/hope he’ll have his say in the comments, so I won’t speak for him here. If you’re interested, he’s written eloquently on the topic in his journal.

Another furry friend of mine is a more vehement kind of Gulliver. His response to the idea of horses as food:

The whole concept fills me with horror and revulsion, and I have to say I felt suddenly sick at the sight of the topic… I think you know of my professional involvement in animal welfare, and I am not a vegetarian. I know some allege this as hypocrisy, and I know issues such as comparative intelligence and whether animals have names or not are not reasons to discriminate what one eats and what one doesn’t. There are, however, welfare issues in the transport and handling of slaughter horses which have a direct bearing. These are matter of scientific fact. […] Even without these important issues, on a personal level I draw no distinction between eating horse and eating dog or cat, or, indeed, human. I would do none of these things (although personally the idea of eating dog, cat or human horrifies me less), and the very idea makes we want to vomit.


That response is taken from an old journal of mine, where I pondered the idea of eating basashi, a sort of Japanese horse carpaccio, which was offered to me while visiting Tokyo:

(I didn’t eat the basashi. I’m vegetarian, contributing my part to the predictable phenomenon that sees furries twice as likely as the general population to avoid meat altogether, as discussed in an [a][s] article from last year.)

Some furries have the opposite reaction from the Gullivers, and actively consume their own species, sometimes as an expression of their furry identity. (Most common, in my experience, among furry deer and bulls.) I haven’t come across any horse furs who look to devour horseflesh, however those in UK looking to express themselves in such a way have more options nowadays: the scandal has seen horse openly introduced to menus across the country, as pubs and restaurants cater to the curious.

There is nothing wrong with being horse-curious, no more than there is being vegetarian, or being a Gulliver. For those that think about it at all, meat is a moral issue, by which I mean that it’s unreasonable to apply universal definitions of right and wrong. There are cultural norms and politics at play here: imagine the hypothetical reactions among people you know to eating dog, or guinea pig, or scorpions. The consumption of animals—living, breathing, tasty things—provokes strong responses in many people. The righteous might keep that in mind before they start telling the rest of us how to think.

It’s the thinking that’s important. And I’m interested to hear your thoughts below.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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32 thoughts on “A Horse’s Thoughts on the Horsemeat Scandal

  1. Well, I’m honoured that you consider me a “favourite” rather than a mere gadfly. (I often fear that I look like the latter.)

    The issue of toxic drug contamination in horse flesh is a very real one. It is complicated by the fact that although the use of drugs such as phenylbutazone (commonly known as “bute”) may be prohibited in continental Europe for fear of the drug entering the food chain, that same drug is highly effective and much preferred by horse owners and veterinarians in the US, Canada, and Mexico. A significant percentage of the horsemeat sold and eaten on the European continent is sourced in America.

    Slaughter of horses for human consumption was temporarily stopped in the US by budgetary and legal constrains on the Department of Agriculture’s ability to inspect the meat. This has been sidestepped by changing regulations to allow the use of privately paid inspectors who are “approved” in some way by the USDA. All of that is a legal fiction anyway, believe me.

    I started college as a prospective veterinarian, though I was eventally sidetracked by my love for the liberal arts. I did get through all the preliminary farm and livestock production courses however, which included tours of slaughter operations and even hands-on experience (with chickens, thank goodness, not mammals.) Those experiences left me with a strong preference for a vegetarian diet, though I am flexible where it is too inconvenient to take a rigid stance. I assure you that there are no guarantees even if an official US inspector was involved, that all the horsemeat passed through was free of undesirable drug contamination, let alone that the slaughter operation was “humane.” There is no such thing as “humane” in that situation. It simply doesn’t exist.

    Though horse slaughter for human consumption is at a standstill in the US right now, truckloads of unwanted horses continue to be shipped long distances into Canada or Mexico where they are slaughtered anyway. This is not humane either, but just a decision of “convenience” for horse owners who don’t want the horse any more.

    Horsemeat produced in Canada and Mexico from these horses is frequently frozen for shipment to Europe or Japan. If meat from anywhere on the European continent was involved in this scandal, then there is some chance that the horses originated in the US.

    Ultimately it is a question of personal conscience, and I know I can’t convince anyone to change their mind so I don’t try. But I will no more willingly eat horseflesh than I would dog, cat, or even rat. My reasons are laid out in the old journal entry (from nine years back) that JM has already referenced here.

    1. Bute is the concern among the broadsheet over here. It’s valid on in general, for the reasons you point out, but it’s not really relevant to the horse that’s turned up in UK ready meals (and elsewhere). There isn’t a problem—yet—with bute exposure in humans due to horse consumption.

      I think you and I agree that obfuscation of the source of food is the real problem. If you live in a world, as we do, where the original plant/animal is unknown to the consumer, it opens up the food production process to any number of unwelcome shortcuts: horse replacing beef; unfit animals approved for slaughter; large-scale bacterial outbreaks.

      On the other hand, food is cheaper nowadays, a good thing in isolation. Unfortunately the real cost of the cheap food isn’t always immediately visible.

  2. In actual response to your post, rather than to a throwaway comment made in it, I think it’s pretty much inevitable that the drive to lower costs will have an effect on meat quality (whether horse, beef, or whatever), exactly as you pointed out.

    To me the issue isn’t that horse got into the food chain, or that some horses instead of some cows got eaten; after all, you could reasonably claim that crappy horsemeat is *provably* indistinguishable from crappy beef, since we’ve probably been eating it for years without anyone noticing. The problem is that the meat was labelled as beef. People want to be free to make informed choices according to their consciences, tastes and ethics. What happened here, in effect, is that people were lied to, which led them to make a choice they likely wouldn’t have made given the facts. It’s pretty fair to be upset about that.

    Now whether or not people actually *do* make choices according to their consciences is another question; you alluded to a rather more serious issue, which is the comparatively unethical treatment of animals destined for economy meals. But we humans are all equipped with powerful reality distortion fields, particularly when some thoughts are too uncomfortable to give any attention. After all, most of us expect to be able to eat meat twice a day, raise 2 kids and a dog, drive 12 miles to the farmer’s market on the weekend, and somehow be considered to be “doing our bit for the planet” by carrying a jute bag and doing some occasional recycling. There’s a good chance we’ll be stared at agog by future generations for thinking *any* of that is acceptable (not to mention generations past).

    Here’s another one: isn’t it screwed up that it’s cheaper to buy a frozen beef lasagna than a meal’s worth of fruit and veg? That can only happen because we wilfully turn a blind eye to the path our food takes from the field to the supermarket shelf. Horsemeat in your beef lasagna is one of the least worst things that can come out of that.

    1. Point very well made. The dishonesty of selling horsemeat as beef is significant even if the buyer might use both. It is no more acceptable than selling chicken as beef or pork as chicken might be.

      So many people are utterly unaware of the breadth of dietary issues (and choices) and are trapped in the range offered by fast food restaurants or cheap convenience foods, that this issue pales by comparison I fear. When I was a schoolchild we had to study basic nutrition and diet in school, but I fear that has all gone away now.

      1. I had a chat with Quentin, our new French contributor at [a][s], and he tells me that the horsemeat scandal has made its way to his part of the world. There is no taboo over horse consumption, but it’s still an issue for exactly the reason you suggest: the dishonesty.

        And on the plus side, cookery lessons are being reintroduced into the compulsory school curriculum, at least in the UK http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9859474/Cookery-lessons-back-on-the-school-menu.html

    2. It’s totally understandable that people have moved away from butchers and towards supermarkets: why pay more? The supermarkets can offer, say, beef mince for less, so people are going to buy that. There are indirect costs, as we’re seeing, but that’s not going to be even imaginable unless you have a basic understanding of supply chains. And that’s not everyone.

      To make an informed decision, you need to be a minor expert in whatever it is you’re purchasing. And most people do not know enough about meat production to make an informed decision. It’s a bit harsh to call it ‘ignorance’ (or a ‘reality distortion field’), because nobody is informed about everything. We all have our blind spots.

      1. I wouldn’t go as far as “minor expert”, I don’t think that’s giving people enough credit. You only need a little time in front of the TV to realise that when Iceland (for example) sells frozen cottage pie for a quid, there’ll have been some corners cut along the way whatever animal it’s made from. So no, I don’t think most people are *genuinely* unaware, I think we have reasonable doubt, but we try not to think too much about it. To be fair, we have other worries too, and if it wasn’t horsemeat, it’d be some other problem, like the “meat” actually being shredded knees and arseholes (mm, sausages).

        I wasn’t being facetious (well okay I was a bit, but I can’t help it) when I said we humans have reality distortion fields. For example a majority of people apparently acknowledge that population growth is one of the biggest global problems we face, yet even those who strongly agree keep having kids. I still smoke despite the warnings on every cigarette packet, and I (like nearly everyone on the planet) know that I’m a tiny speck of wet carbon hurtling through an inconceivably vast cosmic void.

        So as a species our ability to handle cognitive dissonance is truly remarkable, often essential (I wouldn’t want to be crippled by a sudden existential crisis while crossing the road), and often abused by ourselves and others. After all that though, I do reckon that the horsemeat scandal, on a scale of “we have only ourselves to blame” to “it’s those greedy supermarkets”, is probably rather closer to the latter end.

        1. The same logic applies to tinned tomatoes, which I mentioned in passing, or white bread. In the absence of knowledge of the difference between two differently-priced products, people tend to buy the cheapest. Consider if Iceland has two types of cottage pie, one for £1 and one for £2.

          In this way, I think the supermarkets are blameless. By engaging in a race-to-the-bottom, they are simply engaging in meeting demand. Any supermarket not competing on price would quickly become considered to be a rich person’s shop, ala Waitrose, despite the fact that people are spending proportionately less money on food than ever before. The supermarkets are abiding by government rules, and they are simply selling other people’s products. Their suppliers, like Findus, are at some fault however it’s hard to castigate them given how widespread the problem seems to be. I’m happy to blame a combination of the consumers (for collectively agreeing to reward low prices at the expense of quality) and the EU/UK government (for failing to force supplies to have adequate safeguards).

          I guess that, rather that a bad event, the whole thing feels like a morality tale.

          (By the way, I totally agree with the spirit of your thoughts on cognitive dissonance, but I feel that I should point out that the world’s population is forecast to peak sometime around 2070 – http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1108-global-population-to-peak-in-2070.html)

  3. I have to admit that this whole scandal has had me in a little bit of a bind. As you know (or may not ;) ) I have a horse of my own. I’ve always told myself I could never eat horse…

    But It appears that I may have eaten horse, thanks to this illicit meat marking going on in Europe.

    How did that make me feel? Hmmm.. I guess somewhat annoyed that my own desire to never eat horse has gone down the toilet! There’s certainly bugger all I can do about it, apart from be more careful in what I eat! (which is something we should do anyhoo..)

    I will admit that when I filled out Henry’s equine passport, I filled in the section that stated he would never be used for meat. Thats something I don’t think I could take to be honest. I don’t event want to think of him being used for anything else after he trots off to grassier pastures..

    But thats just me.


    1. What concerns me even more is the experience a large animal goes through in the process. The only means of killing that are anywhere near humane are unacceptable if the body is to be consumed by humans. That simply rules out the option as far as I’m concerned.

    2. You can proudly call yourself a Gulliver, methinks.

      Have your shopping/eating habits changed in the last few weeks, as a result of this?

      1. Our eating habits are the same, since we’re trying to diet/eat healthier, there’s been less beef since before this hit, less processed meals too.
        so no change before or after this hit ;)

  4. So you say that horses such as yourself taste very similar to cows? *licks his chops*
    On a more serious note, so the whole horse meat issue had nothing to do with avoiding BSE? IT was simply a cheaper meat that could be sold as “beef’? From an ethical stand point I see the bigger problem being fraud, just as substituting pork for beef or vice versa would be fraud. There could of course be issues of from whence did the horsies come if people were stealing them, but as I understand it, that is not the case.

    I am a carnivore myself, largely because of the way I was raised, but I have tried to change.I particularly wish piggies weren’t so tasty! They really are very intelligent. Despite my efforts so far I have been unable to give up meat, but I have done two things. One reduce the amount of meat I eat, and two avoid trying any new meat. The latter is because I have a hard enough time giving up bacon, I don’t want to find that I enjoy X some much that I have trouble reducing or giving it up. For this reason I would be upset to find out that I had been given another meat. Besides my problems in giving up meat, I also really dislike legumes and mushrooms which rather limits alternate proteins.

    I wonder if those who are carnivores but bothered by eating horse or dog, find it the same level of distress as eating something such as an earthworm. In other words is it the unknown/strangeness of it that bothers them or is it a different feeling altogether?

    If it is different, might it be similar to the revulsion that generally results in incest avoidance. Just as early socialization tends to make many find the idea of sex with relatives stomach turning, so might seeing certain animals as pets/helpers make the idea of eating them stomach turning to some. Most of my friends who have raised animals for food do say they try to avoid forming emotional attachments with the food animals.

    1. And of course in some places the animal is further separated from the meat, so pork instead of pig. Even though adults know what pork is, kids may not when they first try it and that might provided some emotional distance that is not present when referring to horse-meat.

      1. The difference in the word for the meat and the word for the animal is an accident of the history of English. The farmers who raised the animals still spoke AngloSaxon while the chefs and the major consumers of the meat were Normans who spoke French. Beef (boeuf) is French, while cow (cu) is AngloSaxon, mutton (mouton) vs. sheep, etc.

    2. Yes, it appears that the horse was substituted for beef simply because it was cheaper and that particular substitution is not so easy for most people to detect. It’s an old fraud. When I was a veterinary student in the 1960s, they explained to us how to detect horsemeat mixed in with ground beef and why it was a frequent problem even then.

    3. In order to avoid consuming meat, it is best to focus on the excellence of the alternatives rather than thinking of them as substitutes or “fake” meat. Avoid the imitation meat idea, and try some of the better dishes that originate without reference to meat. Examples would be things like eggplant parmesan, true Indian and Mexican dishes (both cuisines are rich in vegetarian delights,) and Middle Eastern or Greek dishes such as spanakopita or falafel.

      1. Unfortunately I do not like eggplant or falafel or many of the other protein alternatives (I mentioned legumes already). I have reduced my meat intake to thrice weekly normally, and eat rice and vegetables on other days.

    4. Hi Keito, thanks for the interesting comments. I have a couple of things to add to Altivo’s words:

      Firstly, I can confirm that it’s nothing to do with BSE: it’s simply suppliers passing off horsemeat as beef.

      Your point about people’s innate reaction to eating certain animals, and how that might be compared to incest avoidance. I’m not sure that the two situations are easily comparable, however both are certainly taboo and the reaction they provoke is emotional at least as much as rational. Curiously my next article for [a][s] (which goes up on Monday, like all my articles) discusses this very idea.

  5. My thoughts on the subject? The fact that it was advertised as beef is of course unethical, because it’s not cow.

    If it was advertised as horse? Hey, I have no issues with people eating horse, their money. I don’t want to eat horse however because I have a rather strong emotional attachment to the animal (that can’t really be explained in this short a space) and would prefer to not undertake in what I would consider “spiritual caniballism.”

    1. I think that’s a pretty similar response to my own: I make my own choices and I’m mostly happy for other people to be different from me.

      The idea of “spiritual cannibalism” is an interesting one though. I know what you mean factually, but maybe you could expand on your thoughts? It is an emotional thing, or perhaps one of the ways that you express yourself as a Halfhorse?

  6. The whole thing with the horsemeat scandal can be summed up by these 3 points.
    1) The producers lied.

    2) Some of the meat contains Phenylbutzaone (which apparently isn’t good for humans) [although, has anyone *actually* been made ill by it?]

    3) Beef is expensive, horse is cheap.

    Solutions should be these:

    1) Make horse a bona-fide foodstuff. It’s good enough for the French (and many others besides). I think it’s time to cut the crap on people’s “horses are pets” beliefs. The simple fact of the matter is that unless people figure out new things to eat, then they’re essentially fucked, due to costs and availability and so on.

    2) Ensure foodstuff horse has a similar quality of life (and quality of drugs) to foodstuff cow.

    3) Allow people to choose between readymeals which are 100% horse, and some which are 90%beef/10% horse (as that’s still going to be a fairly significant cost saving; or the producers wouldn’t be doing it now!

    I for one welcome our new welcome our new equine-consuming overlords.

  7. I wasn’t paying attention and missed this when it was first posted. Only have two things to say, and I’ll do it quickly; after all there’s no point in flogging a dead horse. (I had to say it!)

    I found the whole scandal amusing purely for the hypocrisy. That people treat horses (and dogs or cats) differently to cows according to things which have no real meaning. I know there were other important issues, such as deception and mislabelling but I think to most people those were ad hoc rationalisations for the “squick” factor. I’d say the evidence for that is that the headlines were all about horse meat rather than about mislabelled products. If it wasn’t revealed to be horse and just that the beef was actually goat or something that people already ate I don’t think it would’ve gone anywhere.

    Then the other point might interest you but the news obviously made its way down here (South Africa) and led to similar tests. It seems over here as well there were some weird things found in some meat products, including endangered species. Some other tests didn’t find anything so either depends on the source of the meat or some tests weren’t reliable. I’ve also heard the whole meat scandal has actually been used for a very funny advert for a chicken seller but I haven’t heard it myself.

    1. Hi Rakuen, thanks for stopping by. I completely agree with your first point: the horsemeat scandal demonstrates a real problem with the food supply chain but this seems to have been ignored in favour of—as you put it—ad hod rationalizations for the ‘squick’ factor. If horsemeat weren’t a taboo product I don’t think it would have been such a big deal.

      And thanks for the links to the SA stories. I stumbled across some of those while researching the article, it’s really interesting to see how different cultures have reacted.

        1. I guess the reaction seems to be focussed on whoever has the loudest voice. Here in the UK, there is outrage aimed in the vague direction of the supermarkets and the continent; the French are in arms about the dishonesty and the association of horse as a poor-man’s food; Australians seem to find the whole thing amusing. There is undoubtedly a PhD in it for someone out there.

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