What's So Bad About Horse Meat, Anyway?

Photograph by Ann Lindberg/Getty Images

Eating horse meat wasn’t always taboo, as it now is in places that include the U.K. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III called the pagan ritual a “filthy and abominable custom” and consumption was banned. Still, it must have been tasty enough, because horse meat has never completely disappeared from menus. Today Europeans consume about 80,000 metric tons of it annually.

Gross? Don’t be so quick to judge. Alvin Roth, a winner of the 2012 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, studies distaste or “repugnance,” which he says is as powerful “as the constraints imposed by technology or by the requirements of incentives and efficiency.” In a paper called “Repugnance As A Constraint On Markets,” Roth writes of horse meat: “It is not illegal in California to kill horses or dogs. … the prohibited use is ‘human consumption.’”

I called Roth, now an economics professor at Stanford University, to discuss the horse meat debacle in Europe.

Have you been following the horse meat scandal?
Yes. I just returned from England, actually.

Is everyone there freaking out?
They are not, actually. At Tesco, it’s like buying your meat at Costco. They treat it with a certain degree of skepticism. This is a food-labeling issue. Even in France, where they like horse meat, they don’t like it if they think they are buying beef. If they can slip in horse meat, then maybe the inspection you thought was going to ensure you were only getting healthy cows is not going on. Not only do you not have cows, you have horses, and maybe they were not healthy horses.

If it were chicken or tofu in there, people likely wouldn’t be as upset. What’s the fuss if you’ve eaten some horse?
If you Google “horse meat,” you’ll find mostly sites that say you shouldn’t eat horse meat, but some others will offer you recipes. They both say horses are so beautiful, which is the reason that you: A) should eat horses, and B) shouldn’t eat horses. My guess is that the big issue in Britain and the EU right now is mislabeled food—and the danger of unsafe food getting into the food supply. That is complicated by the fact that some people wouldn’t like to eat horse, even if labeled correctly.

Is the taboo on horse meat bad for business?
A taboo on horse meat is bad for the horse meat business. A mislabeling scandal is bad for the whole food distribution business. The fact that horse meat is what was mislabeled adds some heat to the discussion, just as would be the case if it were pork, which lots of people don’t like to eat.

Does “repugnance,” as you call it, have a big effect on business?
It can be giant. For hundreds of years in Europe, it was a Christian view that charging interest on loans was a repugnant transaction. We wouldn’t have capital markets like we do today if we couldn’t buy capital by paying interest on it. In the other direction, there are things that used to not be repugnant that are now. We used to have markets for slaves. Indentured servitude was a common way that people bought a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, and that was a voluntary transaction.

People have such strong views on eating horses as an ethical issue.
Well, how about eating babies?

But that’s so different.
There you go. You don’t think horses are like babies, but maybe some people do. How about dogs?

It’s all relative?
You shouldn’t judge other people’s repugnance if you have some yourself.

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