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A no horsemeat sign at Bates Butchers in Market Harborough, central England. (Darren Staples/REUTERS)
A no horsemeat sign at Bates Butchers in Market Harborough, central England. (Darren Staples/REUTERS)

Food taboos: What the horsemeat outcry really says about us Add to ...

Eating horse is cruel. The animals are subject to harsh conditions before slaughter. The meat is contaminated with veterinary drugs. As companion animals, they deserve better than to end up on our dinner plates.

Those sentiments have become familiar refrains as the controversy over mislabelled horsemeat in Europe continues to rage. Thousands of Europeans have been horrified to learn that hamburgers, frozen lasagnas and even IKEA meatballs and Taco Bell beef, sold as beef, actually contained horsemeat. Even though the British Food Standards Agency said on Friday that more than 99 per cent of the nearly 1,800 beef products tested in the past week have no traceable amounts of horse, the consumer outrage continues.

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The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed that none of the mislabelled products have been sold in Canada. That hasn’t stopped us from watching the scandal unfold with disgust and wondering whether it could impact products sold here.

It’s an interesting paradox: Eating one type of animal causes an international uproar, but the same consumers likely never bat an eye when cutting into a steak, ordering bacon and eggs or roasting a turkey at Christmas.

Horse is common fare in Quebec and at hip charcuterie-focused restaurants in Toronto, but is often difficult to find in the rest of the country. Kyle Tillotson, a butcher at Windsor Quality Meats in Vancouver, says that a few French-Canadian customers have come looking for horse, but the shop doesn’t supply it. Yet Canada is one of the world’s top producers of horse meat: Last year, it exported nearly 14,000 tonnes to countries such as Japan, Belgium and France.

“It’s very hypocritical,” said David Jenkins, Canada Research Chair in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto. “I think you have to realize that you have to ask yourself, well, how do I get the cow anyway and how do I get the chicken and how do I get the pig?”

A large part of the outcry has been over the mislabelling of ingredients. Consumers should be able to trust that the food they’re purchasing is what it says it is on the label. John Cranfield, professor of agricultural economics in the department of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph, says any adulteration raises concerns over food traceability and whether consumers should trust the food system.

“That trust is something that I think people take for granted,” he said.

But the current controversy goes far beyond labelling. The heart of the issue is our perception of what should be considered food.

The main difference between eating horse as opposed to beef, pork or other meats, is social acceptability and a perceived ick factor. When we see cows and pigs many of us see food. But horses, much like domesticated cats and dogs, are a different story. To put the horsemeat scandal in perspective, imagine the reaction if it were revealed that a range of turkey products actually contained chicken – hard to believe the prime minister would get involved and lament how consumers were misled, as David Cameron has in Britain.

“Why do people get freaked out about this? Because in most Western societies, we don’t eat our companion animals … and horses are a companion animal,” Cranfield said. “It’s about what’s become a social norm.”

In recent weeks, many critics have said there’s a health argument against consuming horse. John Sorenson, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s Brock University who teaches critical animal studies, points out that many horses are treated with drugs that could be dangerous to human health and they may be treated inhumanely, such as being transported long distances in cramped quarters, before they are slaughtered. One painkiller used in horses that is a particular concern is called phenylbutazone. It is banned for use in humans because it can lead to a potentially serious blood disorder. But many reports suggest the amount found in horsemeat would not pose a significant threat to humans.

The CFIA has a zero-tolerance policy on phenylbutazone in food and says it conducts inspections and spot checks to help ensure compliance. But Sorenson points out that many of the arguments about the treatment of horses applies equally to other animals. For instance, the Humane Society of the United States notes that millions of chickens are kept in small spaces throughout their lives, unable to move freely or go outside.

Instead of looking only at the horsemeat controversy with disgust, Sorenson suggests, consumers should take a more critical look at all of the meat they consume.

Echoing those thoughts, Jenkins said the upside of the mislabelling fiasco is that it may help educate people about where their food comes from.

“There’s a sort of natural ambivalence to killing and eating,” Jenkins said. “Until these things happen, no one really pays any attention.”

 

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