The Spectacle Blog

Horse Meat and Cultural Relativism

By on 7.9.13 | 5:47PM

“There is no good reason why America doesn’t eat horses,” claims an article that appeared in Business Insider this February. Horse meat contains more protein, iron, and omega 3, and less fat than lean beef. After a taste test, the Huffington Post described it as a sweeter-tasting mixture between beef and venison.

Horse meat grazed international news this year after several European countries reported finding equine DNA in their processed beef. Yet in the case of meat adulteration, one man’s scandal is another man’s dinner. In Japan and European countries such as France and Italy, horse meat is an expensive delicacy. Elsewhere, in Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and the United States, consumption of horse meat is a cultural taboo.

The American aversion to horse meat is attributable to our perception of horses as companion and sporting animals. For many, eating Mr. Ed is as culturally unthinkable as eating your neighbor’s cat. In Texas and New Jersey, you can be jailed for possessing horse meat with intent to sell. Despite these laws, Americans ate horse meat out of necessity during the Civil War and later as a result of World War II rationing.

Awarding horses “pet status” in American culture has resulted in a missed opportunity, according to Keaton Walker, president of Responsible Transportation. Last week, the USDA approved Responsible Transportation’s application to become America’s second horse slaughterhouse. 

“We believe our company will provide a sustainable solution to the unwanted horse problem,” Keaton wrote. “We recognize horse meat is not something commonly consumed by Americans, but we hope that people can respect the different choices that other cultures make regarding their diets.”

Unwanted horses refer to horses that are injured, lame, sick, or dangerous, as well as those that the owner cannot afford to feed. For these horses, slaughter is often a humane option compared to suffering or starvation. Animal shelters aren't always available, given the costs of upkeep for larger animals.

Keaton argues that making use of every part of a deceased horse represents a sustainable use of resources. Furthermore, horse meat consumption is more ecologically friendly. Horses produce considerably less methane then their bovine counterparts, and they are often raised free range.

The Unwanted Horse Coalition estimates that there are about 170,000 unwanted horses in the U.S. That’s millions of potential horse burgers right there.

The current administration is pressuring Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter inspection as they did in 2006. The Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to deny the USDA funds to pay for the inspections during fiscal year 2014, which would prevent U.S. plants from operating. The full Senate has yet to vote. Such a ban, if passed, would effectively hobble the American horse meat industry. It is now up to Congress to decide yea or nay.

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