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When news broke earlier this year that a spate of European supermarkets had been selling frozen beef products adulterated with horsemeat, a large portion of the Western world collectively wretched. A couple of the products in question—frozen hamburger patties and beef lasagna—showed horse DNA at levels ranging from trace amounts up to 100 percent, and were quickly pulled from freezer cases as the slaughterhouses of origin were investigated. The plot thickened this week after inspectors in the Czech Republic reported that samples from Ikea’s voraciously consumed meatballs turned up evidence of horse DNA, prompting the Swedish mega-retailer to halt sales of its marquee offering in 14 European countries.
As EU authorities try to make sense of the scandal and call for stricter oversight of Europe’s notoriously unregulated meatpacking industry, millions of people around the world are likely wondering what the big fuss is. Despite the notion of horses as pets and companions, horsemeat is widely and willingly consumed in countries ranging from Mexico to China to Italy. So how, exactly, did eating horsemeat become taboo for the rest of us?
NEIGH IT AIN’T SO
Humans have been hunting and eating wild horses since the end of the last ice age and, along with reindeer, the meat provided a vital source of protein. As early as 4000 BCE, however, fossil records indicate the beginning of equine domestication, which likely also marks the initial shift in the way that people thought about horses. One of the earliest public excoriations of horsemeat consumption came from the Vatican in 732, when Pope Gregory III issued a ban on the practice, hoping to distance the church from what it considered a pagan predilection. Even still, horsemeat remained a dietary staple in many parts of the world, especially Europe, with both France and Germany openly bucking the papal decree in the nineteenth century.
The church’s stance undoubtedly had a lasting impact on public perception, though, and likely accounts for at least some of the broad aversion in English-speaking countries like the US, England, Ireland, Australia, and some parts of Canada. Observant Jews are also unable to eat horsemeat because, as neither a ruminant nor a cloven-hoofed animal, it isn’t kosher. Psychologically, as horses assumed the familiar role of companions in battle and work, the idea of eating one must have become increasingly off-putting. And, although eaten by people of all classes throughout history, many cultures now associate horsemeat with penury—a last resort when beef and pork are unaffordable. The practice has never taken hold in America, but, up until 2007 when the nation’s last horse abattoir was shuttered in Illinois, thousands of horses were slaughtered and processed here annually for export.
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