In an article published in 1996, Vogue food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten wrote ecstatically about the French fries severed at Alain Passard’s Paris restaurant, L’Arpège. His frite soliloquy ended up being controversial, however, and not for any reason having to do with trans fats or the potential health ills of deep-fried foods. No, the blowback was sparked by the fact that the potatoes served at the three-Michelin-star establishment, where a lengthy meal, with wine, could run $300 per person, are fried in horse fat.
Today, the Associated Press is reporting another massive horse-y controversy: Twenty thousand frozen beef lasagna meals are being pulled off of shelves in Sweden after Findus, the manufacturer, found that the product may contain between 60 and 100 percent horsemeat. A recall is underway in the U.K. as well.
Is one man’s critically acclaimed fry another’s food scandal?
Save for consuming dogs and cats, there’s no instance of animal eating that incites outrage in red-meat-loving America more than consuming horse. Which is why news in the U.K. about varying percentages of horse DNA appearing in several ground-meat products has resulted in hundreds of exclamatory headlines (our own included)—and thousands upon thousands of disgusted comments—on this side of the pond. British locations of Burger King, which bought meat from the same supplier that Tesco’s horse-tainted burgers came from, was accused of serving equine protein by a number of media outlets, despite tests showing that no horsemeat had entered its supply chain.
In his comments on the issue, Prime Minister David Cameron gets it mostly right, staying away from anthropomorphizing and addressing what this growing scandal is truly about: labeling and accountability. “People will be very angry to find out they have been eating horse when they thought they were eating beef,” Cameron said. “But it’s not about food safety, it’s about proper food labeling. The food standards agency should do everything they can to achieve this.”
(There is something of a public-health concern too, as companion animals are treated with drugs that aren’t approved for use in livestock. Robin Hargreaves, a member of the British veterinary association, tells The Gaurdian that horsemeat containing the drug phenylbutazone should “never be used for human consumption.”)
The idea of eating Black Beauty, Secretariat, Sea Biscuit or your aunt’s mare—whichever horse your nostalgia is forever lassoed to—makes this a particularly emotional case of food fraud, but it’s really no different than the many instances of seafood fraud we’ve reported, or cases in which traditionally processed meat products are passed off as Halal. Paying for a piece of white tuna sashimi, chicken McNuggets prepared according to Islamic law or frozen beef lasagna involves an implicit level of trust—one that’s been equally abused in all of these instances, when a lesser fish that can cause horrendous digestive ills substitutes for what’s listed on the menu, when non-Halal meat is used when the religion-approved version isn’t available, when lasagna is made with horse instead of beef. If someone wants to eat horse-fat-fried potatoes as part of a $300 dinner in Paris—or to eat horsemeat in Italy or Japan or Central Asia, all places where the protein plays a relatively accepted roll in the cuisine—that’s their prerogative.
But how can you kill off a pony for anyone’s dinner, you ask? Because demand remains, and without safe, regulated means of supplying it, things can get ugly. In Britain, 5,000 horses are slaughtered domestically for human consumption, according to a 2008 investigation by the Daily Mail’s Tom Rawstorne; the killing is so taboo that none of the slaughterhouses are listed on the Food Standards Agency’s website. Additionally, some 100,000 horses are “transported in horrific conditions,” according to Rawtorne, to be slaughtered in Eastern Europe. In America we have similarly outsourced the dirty work—to the tune of 133,241 animals in 2011, according to the Equine Welfare Alliance—to Mexico and Canada.
In 2009, the website Farminguk.com posted a list of global horsemeat production that placed Poland in the eighth slot, tied with Canada; both reportedly produce 18,000 tons of horsemeat a year. Tesco’s horse-tainted beef has been traced back to that Eastern European country, and while there’s no way to determine if any of those 100,000 British horses are now, well, coming home to roost, it appears that the U.K. will no longer be able to turn a blind eye on the horsemeat issue.
Similar stories on TakePart:
• Burger King Gets Caught Up in U.K.’s Horsemeat Scandal
• Can We All Agree That Horses Should Not Be In Hamburgers?
• Friend or Food? Horse Slaughter in the U.S. Legal Again
Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com