A major news item in recent days has been the scandal about traces of horsemeat being found in beef burgers. The revealing thing, however, is not the news story itself but the reaction to it. What should have been a scandal about fraudulent trade and dishonest labelling has turned into a debate about the morality of eating horses.
The actual issue here is fraud. Food products purporting to consist of beef have been adulterated with other types of meat. It would have been just as much a scandal if the alien ingredient were chicken, lamb or pork. It is not a health and safety issue either, since these allegedly ‘contaminated’ burgers were perfectly safe to eat.
Why, then, did the issue rapidly turn into whether it is ethical to eat horsemeat? The reason, it seems, is the sentimentality and squeamishness of the British. “It’s feared we may have been eating horse meat for YEARS” screams today’s Daily Mirror. And indeed we have. Horsemeat was widely eaten in Britain until the 1950s, and remains commonplace in many continental countries. I have eaten it in Belgium. And since you ask, it tastes rather like a cross between beef and venison.
British sqeamishness about food shows the extent to which most of us have been cut off from our rural roots. We also tend to think of horses as pet animals (like cats or dogs). For the same reason, the British are turning away from eating rabbit. And the ‘Bambi’ factor puts many people off eating venison. Behind this trend is a growing tendency to anthropomorphise animals – for example, TV nature documentaries have an irritating habit of giving human names to individual wild animals and attributing human feelings to them.
The most absurd outcome of this sentimentality is the British rejection of veal. Veal is an inevitable byproduct of the dairy industry, which has no use for male calves (for obvious reasons). Instead of rearing these calves for veal, the animals are routinely slaughtered at one day old and their carcasses burnt, because there is no market for the meat.
We should stop kidding ourselves. This isn’t about the welfare of animals. It’s about us. The British inhabit a curious moral universe in which it is unethical to eat a horse that has been well cared for and dispatched humanely, but it’s fine to eat battery-reared chickens because they are cheap. We never stop to question the mysterious ‘meat’ topping crumbled on top of our pizzas. We are also happy to consume a well-known brand of hot dog sausage, where the label on the jar reveals the main ingredient as “39% mechanically recovered turkey”.
Bravo, then, to BBC2’s Newsnight, which arranged to cook horsemeat live on TV.
POSTSCRIPT: An interesting perspective from Jay Rayner in the Observer (Sunday 20 January), where we learn that contamination and fraud are an inevitable outcome of a flawed system in which a few big supermarkets can use their monopoly power to squeeze suppliers, who respond by cutting corners.