If you follow the British press, you are aware that the second-biggest scandal in Great Britain, after the ongoing horror of the National Health Service, is the discovery that for years, suppliers of various food products have been substituting horse meat for beef. The horse meat frequently originated in Poland, but recent investigations have found horse meat that originates in Britain itself and has been masquerading as beef. English beefeaters are outraged:
The Food Standards Agency closed a slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire and a processing plant in Wales after an investigation found horse carcasses had been used to make beefburgers and kebabs sold in Britain.
The Environment Secretary said he was absolutely shocked by the allegations and expected the full force of the law to be used against anyone involved in the trade.
The raids represent the first time British meat suppliers have been involved in the scandal since contaminated beefburgers were discovered in January.
Previously, beefburgers and ready meals contaminated with horse meat have been traced to Romania and Poland. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, said: “This is absolutely shocking.”
It is wrong, of course, to pass off horse meat (or anything else) as beef. But Continentals view the Brits’ horror at discovering they have been eating horses with a degree of puzzlement. What’s wrong with horse meat, the French want to know. They eat a lot of it. Of course, people who consider snails and frogs to be excellent protein sources can’t be expected to draw the line at equines; then there is the fact that horse meat has long been a staple of retreating armies.
The whole controversy sheds interesting light on the subject of food preferences and taboos. Braudel writes extensively about the Europeans’ historic preference for wheat, a taste that cost many lives over the centuries. East Asians, on the other hand, scorned bread and lived on rice, a preference that worked pretty well for them, especially after they invented the rice paddy. But wheat and rice are preferences, not taboos. The Chinese historically haven’t wanted to eat bread, but you can buy fried scorpions on the streets of Chinese cities. That isn’t a matter of taste or preference; it is simply disgusting.
Which is not the case with respect to horse meat. I have only eaten it once, a few years ago when I spent a couple of weeks in Osaka, taking depositions at the American consulate there. One night our group went out to dinner at a restaurant where no one spoke English, and our translator ordered for us. We had a lot of great food in Osaka, but this particular evening was pretty exotic for us. Items like whale sushi, and sashimi–which I have never been able to warm up to; I need the rice–and those tiny dried fish with the big black eyes, which my wife liked a lot. But I couldn’t get past the eyes. Anyway, we were well into the meal and hadn’t yet had anything that resembled what we call food at home, when we were delighted to see the waitresses bring out a hibachi and a plate full of chunks of raw red meat. We asked our translator what it was, and she said “horse.” We didn’t care: it was by far the most normal (to us) thing we ate that night, and we enjoyed it heartily. The flavor was good, a little tangier than beef but very much in the red meat family.
So if anyone offers you horse, my advice is to eat it. I understand the issue of mislabeling; nevertheless, I think the Brits are making too big a stir about tucking into old Dobbin.