The Case for Eating Horse Meat

As Congress lifts its de facto ban on horse meat, some chefs (and even animal-rights activists) are applauding the decision

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Congress recently lifted a 2007 ban on funding for the inspection of horse meat, albeit to little applause. It’s not like the country was crazy for the stuff in 2006 and started turning over cars when they found out they couldn’t get it anymore. In a country where Funyuns, bug tacos and cayenne-flavored purgatives are all considered perfectly acceptable, we have never gotten over our national revulsion against horse meat. Maybe we should.

The arguments for eating horse meat would be strong ones, if they weren’t totally irrelevant. For one thing, more Americans are hungry now than at any time in living memory. Part of the reason is the cost of fresh meat, particularly the delicious beef, pork and chicken we have all learned to consider indispensable to human life. (Lamb, veal, turkey and game are remote runners-up.) Americans are never going to eat as much horse as they do veal, which accounts for less than 1% of U.S. meat consumption. Still, because horse meat is unpopular, it will be cheaper, and the poorest Americans could eat fresh meat more frequently.

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I know that not everybody thinks that this is a good thing. More soy, more vegetables, more roughage: we’ve all heard the drill. But if the objection to eating horse is based on health, it could be answered that horses, which are leaner than practically any red-fleshed animal you can name, are actually better for us than the meat we currently eat.

If the objection has to do with animal cruelty and animal rights, I don’t see why horses should be spared when we routinely consume so many other kinds of animals. Obviously, cruelty should be considered as a stigma and an infamy, but you can kill animals in a relatively humane way. And it’s not as if plenty of horses aren’t being killed every year, either; they are just shipped off to some country where there are horse slaughterhouses and inspection departments. According to a June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, about 138,000 of the U.S.’s 9 million horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010 — nearly the same number that were killed in the U.S. before the ban took effect in 2007.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has supported the rule change on the basis that killing the animals in American slaughterhouses, which are regulated by the USDA, would be better than making the horses suffer the hellish transport to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, which are poorly regulated. They would prefer that no animals be slaughtered at all, of course; and some observers, such as the Los Angeles Times, suspect that their approval is, if you will forgive the expression, a stalking horse used to ignite outrage. Because, let’s not forget, Americans love horses; the connection dates back to the settling of the West, when pioneers depended on the animals for transport and plowing fields.

What might happen, however, would be the last thing PETA wants. Americans are grossed out by horse meat, and even those few who remember it associate it with penury and disgrace. But not all the countries we export horse meat to are third world. One such land is our happier and more prosperous neighbor to the north, a big chunk of whose population was bequeathed a tradition of horse eating by their French forebears. One of the most celebrated restaurants in Canada, Montreal’s Joe Beef, serves horse flesh proudly, and includes a recipe for filet de cheval à cheval, accompanied by a gorgeous food-porn shot, in its new cookbook. “Horse is delicious,” says David McMillan, Joe Beef’s co-chef. “It’s like health food compared to beef! It makes you a strong lover, too,” he adds.

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Of course, that doesn’t matter to most Americans because the idea of eating horse meat seems gross to us. While most Americans don’t spend a lot of time (if any) with horses, millions simply like them more than they do even household pets like dogs, which have evolved over 10,000 years specifically to appeal to humans. But those arbitrary and irrational attachments are exactly what animal-rights activists always decry. Why, they ask, is it O.K. to kill cows and pigs by the millions but abominable to slaughter horses? They have a point. But once it has been granted, the conclusion Americans reach might not be the one they anticipated. After all, it’s a lot easier to admit another meat to the butcher’s window than it is to go vegetarian. So if Americans can get over the taboo of eating horses, it may be hard to get them to stop.

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