Why Are Brits Scared of a Little Horse Meat?

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By Tobin Harshaw

The Italians stew it in Amarone and paprika. The Belgians like it raw, as tartare. For the Germans, it's the traditional base of the cultural staple sauerbraten. Britons, however, are freaking out that they might have unknowingly eaten a bit of horse meat last time they tucked into a hamburger.

The U.K.'s biggest grocery chain, Tesco, and other markets pulled frozen ground beef patties from the shelves in Britain and Ireland yesterday after Irish authorities found horse DNA in 37 percent of products they surveyed. While there's apparently no health risk involved, public outrage spurred Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a government investigation of the "completely unacceptable state of affairs."

O.K., nobody wants to buy -- nonetheless eat -- something that is other than advertised. But would we have seen this sort of brouhaha if it had involved stray meat from something that doesn't run at Ascot? In fact, nobody seems much troubled that 85 percent of the meat in the tested batch showed signs of pork DNA.

Like the penchant for finance capitalism and Iraqi invasions, distaste for equine flesh seems to be an Anglo-Saxon trait. Two-thirds of people in France and Belgium have eaten it at least once, and for the Dutch it provides that special flavor kick in Jumbo supermarket's frozen minisnacks. Japanese foodies prize it, and China is the world's biggest horse-flesh consumer. Mexico and Argentina are major producers. (The Mongolians, who started the whole trend, have largely switched to sheep.)

So, other than squeamishness or sentiment over Black Beauty, why isn't horse flesh a part of American or British cuisine? Economics might be one reason. Until the rise of the automobile, horses were simply too valuable for transportation and agriculture to be raised for slaughter. They are also rather inefficient eaters, needing far more feed to gain weight than cattle. Still, modern diets may have more of a place for horse flesh: It's low in cholesterol and fat, and high in protein and Omega 3 fatty acids.

The tiny U.S. industry shut down in 2006 when the last slaughterhouse was closed, and the Agriculture Department stopped inspecting horse meat, effectively barring sales. Congress re-funded USDA inspections for last year, but the agency showed no eagerness to get back on the job, and Representative Jim Moran of Virginia attached a reinstatement of the ban to the 2013 package.

Supporters of the slaughter say that most horses that would be processed domestically are now being sent to abbatoirs in Mexico and Canada -- 138,000 of them in 2010 -- and that some owners of unwanted horses, facing high fees for euthanasia and disposal, are abandoning them to starvation. Most opposition is on animal-cruelty grounds, although there are claims that the meat is often tainted with harmful pharmaceuticals.

Which leads us to the big question: What's it taste like? New Yorkers missed an opportunity to find out last summer when M. Wells Dinette, the restaurant at the Museum of Mondern Art's P.S. 1 outpost in Queens, abandoned plans to serve horse tartare. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay called it "slightly gamey"; Ryan Poli of Chicago's Tavernita resorted to metaphor: "If you walked into a meadow after it rained, that’s the only way I could describe the taste."

Americans who want to find out for themselves will have to lobby against the Moran amendment. Brits will have to hurry and scour the shelves at Tesco. I, meanwhile, am off to Rome in a few weeks and will have my eyes open for a place with pezzeti di cavallo on the menu.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Jan/16/2013 18:05 GMT