Why do we say neigh to horsemeat?

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What do you call a burnt Tesco burger? Black Beauty.

When it was revealed that Tesco value ‘beef’ burgers contained 30% horsemeat, the nation’s response was one of genuine shock and horror. Facebook and Twitter became flooded with people sharing the story, and it was hard to escape the barrage of bad jokes on the subject circulating the internet (see above). While this reaction is understandable (everybody loves a good screw-up when it comes to big companies), why was it that the story caused such a huge sensation?

It might be because, as a culture, we are disinclined to stray beyond the usual pig-cow-sheep-chicken-fish categories when it comes to our meat. Horse is commonly eaten in many counties in both Europe and Asia, including China, France and Italy, who have no such qualms against equestrian dishes. So why do we have such a problem with the idea?

Such a taboo supposedly lingers from a prohibition on horse meat from the Roman Catholic Church around 1,300 years ago, when Pope Gregory III was determined to put a stop to the ritual consumption of horse meat in pagan practice. However, it seems in this day and age the country’s avoidance of horse meat goes beyond such archaic rules or even a distrust of what isn’t the norm to eat. Instead, it seems to be a kind of sentimentality that prevents us from eating certain things – horses are seen as having a closer relationship to humans than cattle, more like household pets than farmyard animals. Similarly, most people wouldn’t want to eat cat or dog (which are again widely eaten in other countries).

However, to me this way of thinking doesn’t make sense. If you kept a sheep or a pig as a pet – and many people do, think of the craze of ‘micro-pigs’ a while ago – you definitely wouldn’t want to eat it either. If you can become sentimentally attached to any animal, and that makes you not want to eat it or any other of its kind (as with horses), why do you eat meat at all? It seems most people don’t normally think about where their food comes from, and our view of horses as pets simply makes us more conscious of them as living beings. This is my personal opinion, and I know many people won’t agree. I also understand that the social taboo against eating horsemeat makes the issue slightly more complex than straightforward comparisons to other animals.

Despite this, there are other reasons why the horsemeat burgers caused such a fuss. Of course, many were primarily annoyed by the fact Tesco were selling these as beef burgers (even sporting the label ‘now with 8% more beef’!) – that’s just blatant false advertising. However, I’m inclined to agree with the argument that you’re buying Tesco own brand here. You get what you pay for, people.
But really, what the fiasco has mainly highlighted is the fact that the majority of the time we have no idea about what goes into most of the food we eat. What is really scary is that we could be eating any number of things we don’t really want to eat without even knowing it. Nor do we normally wish to investigate into our food’s production, preferring to be in the dark and enjoy our meals without knowing the gory details. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

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