Why we cringe at horse meat but devour cow

Cultural norms and environmental impact play big roles in what makes its way to our dinner plates -- and what we shun as taboo.

By Jason Notte Feb 21, 2013 8:31AM
Cowboy America © Andrew Rich, Vetta, Getty Images

The nearly constant headlines about horse meat making its way into so many products in Europe sure are stirring a lot of controversy -- and passion. Giant multinational companies like Nestle (NSRGY), which makes the Buitoni ravioli and tortellini that were found to have horse meat, have landed in this uncomfortable spotlight.

And Nestle has plenty of company, with household names like Burger King (BKW) and Wal-Mart (WMT), also getting drawn into the controversy.

These stories made me think about a visit I made to Iceland in 2009, which was where I first saw whale as a menu item and where I had my first bite of minke whale. I've never condoned or condemned whaling before, and this particular specimen had been killed well before I came upon it.

It was slightly violet and had a consistency similar to a filet mignon but far more rubbery. In my view, it wasn't worth eating again and certainly wasn't worth pursuing in Arctic waters just to reel in curious tourists.

As U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke pointed out a year later, however, those minke whales also encouraged Icelandic whalers to kill 273 endangered fin whales in two years and violate the moratorium on commercial whaling by exporting tons of whale meat to Japan.

Those bites of whale haven't sat well since, especially since the horse meat stories started coming out of Europe lately. According to James A. Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, both the whale and horse examples encompass varying points on the meat taboo spectrum he laid out in an article for On The Human in 2011.

He notes that while some animals are shunned as food because there are (or were) practical, health-related reasons for not eating them as well as purely symbolic reasons. Pigs, for example, have cloven hooves, don’t chew their cud and could kill you if undercooked, putting them squarely on many religions' "do no eat" lists.

There's also the human attachment to domesticated, more beloved members of the animal kingdom to consider. Horses drift into this territory, but dogs and cats firmly occupy this forbidden zone for Western consumers.

"As a representative of meat-eating, urban humanity, I sometimes wonder whether all the care and attention I lavish on my pet dog and cat -- not to mention my refusal to countenance eating them under any circumstances -- might not also represent a kind of moral atonement; a way of compensating one group of animals for the sins I commit against others," Seprell opined in his article.

During an interview with National Public Radio on Tuesday, Serpell copped to eating dog while in Indonesia a few years back. However, he says he recoiled not only from the taste, but from the revelation of what the animal was. At the same time, he notes that Asian cultures draw a line between feral street dogs and more Western pet dogs as if they were separate species, meaning they're just as put off by the thought of eating the neighbor's Golden Retriever as any American would be.


He also notes that there's a distinct difference in trying meats without knowing what they are, as in Europe's horse meat scare, and buying guinea pig or donkey at the supermarket, taking it home and making steak. Complicity counts, and it's perhaps the biggest reason minke won't be making its way to my plate again.


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Feb 21, 2013 11:04AM
Horse meat is pretty tender and mostly cheaper than beef. There was quite a lot of butchers in Europe selling only horse meat. The number went down with time, but you can still find a few of them. Horse was more appreciated after world war II when there was no abundance of food until the sixties when people could afford to get better meats. But if you see the beef prices in Europe today, you may start to look at the horse again.
Feb 21, 2013 2:00PM

"I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse" 




" Don't have a cow !"

Feb 21, 2013 2:14PM

I have eaten horse meat and found it to be very good.  There has to be away to use this abundent source of protein.  Horses are slaughtered every day and what is done with the meat.  I think the only thing missing is the ability of USDA to inspect as they do for  pork, chicken and beef and any other meat source that is sold in the United States. Don't get me wrong I love horses and have some of my own and I would not want to eat them but to buy horse meat in a market that was inspected I would not be opposed to it.


Feb 21, 2013 1:33PM

I eat horse on every trip to Switzerland to see family, at least once a year.


I was first introduced to horse meat in the early 70's, I was stationed at Nellis AFB outside of Las Vegas, married, 2 kids and living on Buck Sgt's pay. A new meat company opened up called "American Meats IIRC and they specialized in horse meat. We could buy steaks fo rthe price of hamburger at this place and found that the meat overall had better texture, less fat, not a tough as most cuts of beef and tasted great.



Feb 21, 2013 12:55PM
When I was a kid I worked in a slaughter house. I have always regretted that job. Even today I can see the fear in those animals eyes and they will haunt me my whole life. Those animals, they were so scared.  I can still see them kicking and swinging on the hoist. And just seconds after they stop kicking, their skin pulled from their bodies. Muscles still hot and moving, and onto the saws they go.
Maybe if they didn't see it coming, but it was so obvious to them what was going to happen.
Today, I eat very little meat because of it and wouldn't eat any at all if I could convince the cook otherwise.

Feb 21, 2013 3:22PM

I agree with "Don't play in the water".  I too have horses and can attest that every thing we use to keep them healthy, from wormer to fly spray says "do not use on horses intended for human consumption".  These animal work them to selves half to death for people, and how are they repayed???  By selfishly be auctioned off to the highes bidder, regardless of whom it may be.  Please don't breed, try adopting, or rescuing a horse in need a good home.

With the increase in the Earth's population, you may find more people eating things they wouldn't have considered yesterday.   Survival means finding nutrition wherever it may be.  For some, insects are their only staple.
Feb 21, 2013 2:05PM
During WWII beef was sent to Europe for the soldiers, here in the states horse was sold to replace the beef. So eatting horse isnt as uncommon as most people think.
Feb 21, 2013 3:30PM
I remember when there was a beef shortage some years back and the butcher shops sold horse meat and buffalo, even my great grandmother use to tell me that they ate horse meat at times when she was younger
Feb 21, 2013 2:03PM

If you can ride it, you can eat it.  If you can't., you can still eat it, but first, you have to figure out why you can't ride it.

Feb 21, 2013 4:06PM
To the author-- as a note to your comment on pigs-- pig meat from the US is quite safe and the days of dying (from Trichenella) are non existent and a pork chop could even be eaten rare. 
Feb 21, 2013 5:16PM
Seems to me if things keep going the way they are we will be forced into eating stuff a lot worse.
Feb 21, 2013 4:27PM
I think its okay to eat horse but as a Westerner, it is sad to me.  In my culture I don't eat horses, cats, dogs, monkeys or donkeys.   I've just been raised to not eat those things and the idea isn't pleasant to me but it could be done if necessary.  I just hope its never necessary.
Feb 21, 2013 3:09PM
if you wouldnt eat horse meat, your not hungry enough.
Feb 21, 2013 1:00PM
If this trend continues, we may well find Mr. Ed eating dear old Wilbur.
Feb 21, 2013 5:23PM

Why the hell we eat cows, that is disgusting in some culture, in noble cultural cows are respected because it nourish so much Humanity.  In this noble culture they have the largest number of righteous vegetarians!!!.


In China , Korea , Philippines they eat everything from Dogs & Cats , so what the is hell wrong with that!! don't be hypocrites!!!

Feb 21, 2013 4:58PM
Meat is meat? Ya think? Eat what you want. And don't criticize the Donner party! 
Feb 21, 2013 4:56PM
That's disgusting! What's next? The family dog? OMG!!
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