It’s Time To Examine Our Taboos About Horse Meat

Earlier this week, Cure, the much-lauded Pittsburgh eatery, got an earful on Twitter and Yelp (the twin towers of people registering dissatisfaction on the internet) because they served horse tartare. A petition soon followed and the USDA slapped the restaurant’s wrist over the decision. One furious commenter on the restaurant’s Facebook page wrote, “Wow. Serving up mammals that are generally smarter than some humans. [sic] You putting Hipster Tartare on the menu next? This is truly revolting.”

Cure is generally known for having fun with their proteins (and flavor combinations). The very same menu that featured the horse also highlighted razor clam poutine, elk, and “lobster nuggets.” So why does serving horse cause so much uproar? How did it become taboo in the US, where we serve deer meat at fast food restaurants?

A Little History

Historically speaking, humans have been eating horse since at least the last ice age. Moreover, the vast majority of the meat-eating world still eats horse. You can find plenty of butchers and restaurants selling horse meat across Europe, Asia, and the Americas (Quebec and Mexico especially). Horse is so popular in some European countries that there are horse burger fast food joints — like Hot Horse in Slovenia. In these places, it’s no different than eating cow or pig or fish.

That’s not to say that horse has been universally accepted. Over the course of history, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims all banned eating the meat at one time or another. In Judaism, horses don’t fall under the cloven hoof didactic teachings of Leviticus, so they’re not kosher. In both Catholicism and Islam, the situation is more muddled. Islamic scholars debate whether horses are okay to eat to this day but err on the side of “no” — citing a Quran verse that anoints horses for adornment and riding, not slaughter. The Catholic bias doesn’t come from scriptures but from 732, when Pope Gregory III decided that banning horse slaughter would help distance society from its pagan ways.

Still, horse meat persisted in the United States until well into the 20th century. In fact, as late as the 1950s, Time Magazine reported horse as being a staple of western cuisine. This endorsement didn’t do much to turn the tide — in the years that followed the protein rapidly faded from menus.

The decline of horse meat was driven by a dramatic shift in the role horses played in human lives. By the 50s and 60s, the beasts of burden had become beloved pets. Horse ownership bottomed out in the 1960s at around three million horses in the United States. Today, we keep closer to eight million horses as pets.

There were other factors, too. Horse meat was often associated with starving troops on the battlefield, who had to resort to eating their horses to survive. It was a meal of last resort, food for the desperate. It’s no surprise then that the last boom in horse meat in America came in the 1970s and was attributed to a shortage of other meats.

In 2007, the last horse slaughterhouse in the United States closed. The era of horse meat in American cuisine looked like a relic of the past.

We Feel Like We Know Horses

One facet that is working against horse meat is in the name. Sheep, cow, pig all have cool French-inspired culinary names like mutton, beef, and pork. These allow a certain “psychic distance” to form between the living animal and the cut on your plate. Horse is just horse.

Then there’s the pet/companion variable. People in the English-speaking world associate a far greater friendship with the animals they deem their pets. Horses certainly fall into that category in the US and UK, but that argument seems to lose steam when you consider Central Asian cultures in which horses are absolutely revered during their lives and happily eaten when their time is up.

Moreover, horse ownership is very low, comparatively speaking. So low that Americans own more than twice as many birds as pets as we do horses. Where is the fried chicken outrage? After all, less than two percent of the American population actually owns a horse (compared to a dog ownership rate at 44 percent).

Perhaps pop culture holds the secret: Could it be that the fantasy of the west, of social mobility, and an almost preternatural and supernatural connection to the horse perpetuated by literature, film, sports, and TV play the biggest role? The horse is the majestic animal that is part of our cultural history of manifest destiny and the beast that runs in the ‘Sport of Kings.’ Who wants to barbecue that?

The Health Aspect

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Some real talk: Horse meat contains double the iron of beef and double the vitamin B12. When it comes to the beloved Omega-3 fatty acids, horse has “360 mg (per 100 grams) compared to just 21 mg” in the same amount of beef from a similar cut. Omega-3, you might remember, are known to fight heart disease, neurological disorders, and stroke. Moreover, it’s seen as a lean, more nutritious alternative to fattier red meat from cows — thus, it’s staying power as a staple protein in the rest of the world

Celebrity Chef Marc Murphy broke down why horse is great for us (if we eat meat) in a recent interview over at CNN.

“It’s a cultural difference,” he said. “When I was a kid I ate horse meat. It’s very sweet and very lean.”

But when pressed, even Chef Murphy shied away from ever considering putting horse on his menus.

“I don’t think I’d ever put it on my menu, not here,” he said. “I mean, maybe if I opened a restaurant in France, I probably would. You have to serve the public. That’s how we make our money. We have to please the customers.”

Even in our health obsessed nation, serving horse to an American dining audience would be too controversial and money-wasting to even bother with — as the team at Cure saw firsthand.

Costs And The ‘Humane’ Option

Another argument for the consumption of horses boils down to the cost and harm done to the animals since the US banned — for all intents and purposes — the slaughter of the animal. Since 2007 horse abandonment has skyrocketed across America. Once a horse stops racing, riding, or working they can live up to 15 more years, requiring food, shelter, and medical care. This coupled with the fact that the average cat or dog lives 10-15 years while a horse can live 30 years, means a huge monetary commitment, especially for a pet.

The Animal Welfare Council conducted a study with the Department of Agriculture and found that a retired horse will cost its owner approximately $2,340 per year. They surmise that a horse has 15 good working years and around 15 in retirement. That’s no small amount. In the old days, horse owners would sell their animals to a slaughterhouse in the USA that met federal regulations. But that ended. The cessation of the horse slaughtering industry in the US means that horses have to be exported for slaughter to Mexico or Canada. And Mexico doesn’t regulate their slaughters particularly well.

Famed animal advocate Dr. Temple Grandin wrote about horse slaughter in April of 2012. Dr. Grandin felt it important to address the need of re-opening horse slaughterhouse facilities in the USA. The main caveat cited was the lack of regulation and practices that horses suffer by being shipped to Mexico. Dr. Grandin wrote, “My biggest concern is that horses going to totally unregulated slaughter facilities in Mexico is much worse than even a poorly run U.S. plant. It is my opinion that the worst outcome from an animal welfare perspective is a horse going to a local Mexican abattoir.”

The only other options available for those who can’t afford to house and feed a horse for 15+ extra years is to simply release them in the wild. The Casper Star Tribune reported a few years back about a dramatic uptick in abandoned horses since 2007. Colorado ranch hands who normally handled one or two abandoned horses a year suddenly were dealing with 14 or 15 a year. And that’s just in one corner of the country. The ranch hands called it “the worst cases of animal cruelty” they have ever seen.

It could be argued that the people who advocated the safety and humane treatment of horses in the US and successfully lobbied to get horse slaughterhouses shuttered, created a more tragic situation in almost every way for horses. It would seem that a rethinking of our dismissal of horse abattoirs is needed to bring some reality into the situation of owning and caring for a horse — even in its eventual death.

The current path groups like PETA are taking is to now ban the export of horses for slaughter. Which seems like it would only further exacerbate the abandonment problem. In that case, horse owners would only be left with the euthanasia and disposal services offered by vets, which costs upwards of $600. Meanwhile, Canadian slaughterhouses offer anywhere from 50-70 cents per pound for an animal.

It strikes an odd note — in theory, horse could prove a more sustainable source of animal protein than cows in almost every way. They aren’t bred to eat; their lives serve a dual purpose. They are free-range and grass-fed in an era that values those things. And, like it or not, eating them would serve a utility. Sadly, not every old horse can go and live with Jon Stewart.

In The End

The case for eating horse is strong. It tastes good, it’s healthy, and it’s ecologically sound. Alas, we seem to be locked into our thinking that a horse is a pet and only that — good for riding, not for eating (though there’s hypocrisy embedded in this thought when you consider horse abandonment). The team at Cure was essentially shouted down for being monsters, when, given an open forum, they might have made a strong case for their way of thinking.

Will horses return to American plates in due time? It’s hard to say. Clearly our culture has shifted far away from the practice now, but if food culture teaches us anything it’s that change is the only constant.