Debate This: Okay, So What’s The Big Deal About Horse Meat?

For the past couple of weeks, there’s been a major scandal brewing, regarding the use of horse meat in food products that were advertised as beef. Horse meat was found in meatballs at Ikea (the company says only its European stores); at British Taco Bells; and some meat in supermarket freezers in Ireland and Britain.

For me, it seemed like not really a big deal. As you all probably know by now, I’m a self-righteous vegan (that was sarcastic). I’ve been vegetarian for more than 20 years and vegan just this past year, and so my perspective is “meat is meat is meat.” As someone who doesn’t equivocate when it comes to animals, for me, eating pigs or cows is just as absurd as eating horses or, I don’t know, pegacorns. So when I saw people freaking out about the idea that horse meat might be in their tacos and gourmet Ikea Swedish meatballs (and seriously, those meatballs are likely made of equal parts horse and particle board), I was like whaaaaa?

On an admittedly simplistic level, it just seemed ridiculous to say that eating some meat was perfectly normal and okay, while eating Black Beauty wasn’t.

And then I put it to my Facebook friends: What’s the big deal about horse meat? And boy, did I get answers.

Some friends noted that horses fall into the “animals as pets” category, that typical livestock do. You wouldn’t eat your pet dog, right? So why would you want to eat a horse? Despite being traditionally understood as work animals in most other cultures, horses enjoy an elevated status — sure, they’re work animals, but they’re also considered noble. We’ve anthropomorphized them in a number of scenarios — Black Beauty and “Mr. Ed” come immediately to mind — and it’s practically a rite of passage for little girls to go through a “horse phase.”

In truth, there are dozens of cultures that eat horse — including Italians and French, which both have highly respected food cultures. It’s a traditional protein source in much of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. As one food journalist explained, horse meat has a high glycogen content, which means that it’s sweeter than a lot of other meats. Because sugar is so commonly used as an additive in virtually every food (really, check the ingredients list on your pre-packaged meatballs sometime), it makes sense from a flavor perspective that horse meat might be added in.

But the more salient case for why meat eaters might be okay with chickens and not horses comes down to a question of consumer confidence and corporate honesty. Put simply: People want to know that when the sticker on the package says “ground pork” that’s what they’re actually getting. The horse meat scandal reminds us that we are really at the mercy of food producers to fairly represent their products in the marketplace. And when they fail to accurately and honestly disclose the contents of their food, we feel betrayed.

The reason why the horse meat scandal looms so large is because it harkens back to a very primal “Soylent Green” fear:  What if this thing I’m eating isn’t what I think it is? It takes away our fundamental sense of free will when corporations lie to us in such an egregious way. And I don’t blame consumers for being outraged about companies advertising a product as one thing when it’s really another.

And here’s the rub: We live in a culture in which the majority of us are very, very far removed from the actual production of our food. When we’re hungry, we simply go to the store or restaurant and pick out what we want, mostly without thinking about where it came from, or the labor, money and production that went into getting it to your plate.  That is both the bizarre luxury and curse of living in a developed economy. Food that is closer to well, food, tends to cost more, and be in shorter supply in poorer economies — and, I’d posit, a likely reason for why obesity is at an epidemic rate in this country.

But here’s my hope: This horse meat scandal will open up a larger space in the public consciousness for people to really think about what they’re eating. You don’t have to be a self-righteous vegan (again, kidding!) to know that the beef, dairy, pork and poultry industries regularly incorporate hormones and additives into their animals and products. And even beyond that, us herbivores should be equally wary of food that’s grown using dangerous pesticides or plants that have been genetically modified. I’m not here to argue the ethics of these things — nor am I trying to fearmonger, and make you afraid of everything you eat. But maybe this will encourage the public to wake up and realize how often our food is not, well, really food, and how often the things we eat are manipulated by large corporations in the name of saving a few pennies.