Eating Horse: A Social Taboo in The U.S.A. and the U.K.
In both the United Kingdom and the United States, the act of eating horse meat, or hippophagy, is taboo, and even appalling to many, though it’s not illegal. So, when it was revealed in February 2013 that up to 100% of the meat found in some frozen lasagna meals, burgers, and spaghetti Bolognese being sold in the UK was actually horse meat, and not beef, consumers in both countries became alarmed.
The revelation didn’t impact only a small minority of Britain’s population either. The products that tested positive for horse meat were being sold at major food chains, including Aldi and Tesco. To put it into perspective, Tesco is the second-largest retailer in the world, second only to Walmart. One reason consumers in the United States continue to be up in arms about their food supply possibly being tainted with horse meat is that both Aldi and Tesco have stores in the U.S. The assumption is that there has to be a connection.
So far, though, there has been no direct link connecting the horse meat saga in the United Kingdom with the United States food supply chain. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no beef is imported into the United States from any country that was involved in the horse meat scandal. Even so, U.S. consumers remain uneasy about the integrity of the meat they purchase. But, why would something that happened in the United Kingdom continue to have such a visceral effect on United States consumers, even after they’ve been assured that there is no connection between the two?
The Emotional Connection
The thought of eating horse meat versus eating other animals comes down to two primary factors: cultural norms and individual emotions. That’s what makes the act taboo for some people, but a regular practice for others, according to psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer, who was interviewed by FOX News for a February 15, 2013 online article. Dr. Archer told FOX news “It’s the perception of what the animal represents in the culture.” He continues on to say “No one’s thinking logically that it’s wrong; it’s an emotional reaction…”
Apparently it’s a highly emotional subject and culturally unacceptable act in the United States. In 2011, the federal government lifted a five year ban on funding inspections for horse meat processing, but since then there has not been one plant that has opened across the U.S. The only two plants that tried to open, one in Missouri and the other in New Mexico, failed because of public outrage.
History of Hippophagy in the U.S.A.
Prior to the original 2007 ban on inspection funding, there were only three horse meat processing plants operating in the United States. Two of those plants were in Texas and the other plant was located in Illinois. Even then those processors primarily exported horse meat to Mexico and Canada because Americans just weren’t interested in eating it.
Going back even a bit further, horse meat wasn’t a hot commodity at all in the United States during the 20th century, though it did serve as a temporary protein staple for a short period of time during World War II. Even then, it was only because beef, and other traditionally accepted meats, were being rationed. Similarly, during the recession of 1973-1975, horse meat sales surged because inflation increased the price of traditional meats so much that it made those meats cost-prohibitive for many families.
The slaughtering of horses for consumption in the U.S. has historically only been culturally acceptable during the leanest of economic times. According to William Hallman “It’s a hugely political issue.” Hallman, director of Rutger University’s Food Policy Institute, told ABC news in a February 26, 2013 online article that “It has to do with the slaughter of horses and whether that’s acceptable to U.S. society or not.” Apparently, it’s not.
Current Cultural Resistance
Public opposition to the slaughtering of horses is strong in the United States, according to a poll conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The poll results, which were released on February 1, 2012, reflect that 80 percent of American voters oppose the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Further, the survey suggests that the opposition holds regardless of political affiliation, gender, or geographic location.
In the ASPCA’s online press release announcing the survey results, Nancy Perry, who serves as the ASPCA’s Senior Vice President of Governmental Relations, said that “Americans have a responsibility to protect these intelligent, sensitive animals from being butchered.” Senator Mary Landrier (D-LA) agreed, saying in the same article “I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress and other advocates to ensure that the American people are heard and that we stop this inhumane practice once and for all.”
The Argument for Slaughterhouses
As is the case with any controversial subject, there are two sides to the story. Those who advocate for the slaughtering of horses speak of the inhumanities horses currently face because of the economy. Dave Duquette is president and founder of United Horsemen, a non-profit organization that advocates for the acceptance of horse slaughterhouses. In the ABC news article of February 26, 2013, Mr. Duquette is quoted as saying “The problem has gotten worse with horses that are abandoned, neglected, abused and starving to death and the direct cause is this and the economy.”
Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) agrees with Mr. Duquette’s assessment. In a July 15, 2013 article posted at http://www.time.com, Rep. Kingston is quoted as saying “While we all love horses and their contributions to our culture, the ban led to unintended consequences and increased inhumane treatment of the animals.”
Representative Kingston, along with Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), commissioned a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2010 that is largely believed to be the benchmark that was used to reestablish funding for horse slaughterhouses. Since then, the GAO report has come under serious scrutiny with allegations that the number of horse abuses was intentionally inflated just to get the funding back in place.
Aside from an alleged increase in the number of neglected and abused horses, according to Mr. Duquette, Native American Indian reservations have been flooded with feral horses since the slaughterhouses were originally shut down. He’s right. In an online New York Times article dated October 7, 2013, Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, estimates that the tens of thousands of feral horses on the Navajo’s land cost them about $200,000 in repairs annually. However, in the same article, Mr. Shelly, who previously supported the rounding up of feral horses for slaughter, reversed course. Saying “Horses are sacred animals to us”, Ben Shelly indicates in the article that he no longer supports the practice.
All of the controversy surrounding horse slaughterhouses in the United States lends credence to Dr. Archer’s assessment that the reason animals are viewed differently as food sources from person-to-person and place-to-place is because of individual emotions and cultural acceptance. For example, Australian scientists promote the idea of eating kangaroos, saying it’s a greener alternative to beef. In other parts of the world, elephants, silk worms, camels, and guinea pigs are common fare. Unless there’s a major cultural shift towards acceptance of hippophagy in the United States, however, horse will not be on the menu.