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.
ALL THE TASTY HORSES
So, who’s eating the equines? Figures from 2010 showed Mexico as the top producer of horsemeat for that year with 140,000 tons, followed by China (126,000 tons) and Kazakhstan (114,000 tons). Although horsemeat is still consumed in these countries, much of it is processed for export to Europe and Central Asia. In Japan, a popular horsemeat dish called basashi is served raw, sashimi style. In both Kazakhstan and South Korea, fat from the neck meat is prized for its flavor. Belgium, France, and Germany all have long and unapologetic roots in equine cuisine, and sauerbraten was originally prepared using horse. The meat is a staple in many Northern Italian and Sicilian preparations, and is incorporated into sausages and salamis, or served dried and shredded for a snack called sfilacci, which looks like a plate of deep red vermicelli. The Dutch and Swedish prefer it sliced thin for lunchmeat. South Americans generally shy away from eating it, but several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, all process the meat for export. Many Canadians feel the same way about horsemeat as Americans, but horse abattoirs still operate there and it’s very popular in Quebec, where you can find it in supermarkets, and other French-influenced regions.
As for taste, horsemeat is sweet and lean, but surprisingly, given its musculature, not very tough. It’s a red meat, with a taste somewhere between beef and venison, and connoisseurs are said to prefer it rare owing to how bloody the meat is, which imparts more flavor. One pound of horsemeat has fewer calories, half as much fat, a quarter less cholesterol and almost twice as much iron as a similar serving of 90/10 ground beef.