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The Ethics of Food: Why not Horse Meat? March 2, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Food and Drink, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Food.
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A scandal is shaking up Europe: meat departments in supermarkets have been pulling “beef” from the meat counters, because it has turned out that horse meat DNA has been present in what was sold as beef. And lately the Swedish furniture giant Ikea has been pulling their meatballs (oh no, not that!) and sausages from stores in 21 European countries. According to an AP report,

“Monday’s move comes after authorities in the Czech Republic said they had detected horse DNA in tests of 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) packs of frozen meatballs labeled as beef and pork.”

 According to Ikea their stores in the US are not affected, because they use meat from suppliers in the U.S. However, Burger King recently severed ties with an Irish supplier because of horse flesh contamination, and Taco Bell has has similar issues.

 So this is now an expanding scandal–but what exactly is the problem? First of all, it is of course a matter of consumer confidence: You buy something believing it is beef, so you don’t want something that’s not beef. (If you were actually shopping for a horse burger in France, you would not appreciate if the meat had been mixed with pork, or ostrich. It is a matter of consumer expectations.) But second of all, there’s the horse thing.

 In some places of the world they eat horse, and like it. Growing up in Europe, I’ve been served horse burgers myself, and I didn’t much care for them; they tasted too sweet for me, like a hamburger with honey. In certain cultures in Southeast Asia dog and cat meat is on the menu. In some villages in Africa they have, at least until recently, eaten gorilla. In some remote locations in the South Pacific “long pig” was considered an acceptable food item (at least according to legends and Hollywood movies) until well into the 20th century. And we all come from distant ancestors who ate just about anything that would keep them alive. In some places they have even eaten dirt, but that’s not digestible. Meat is. Food can be many things to many people, and just because something can be digested doesn’t mean we accept it as food. Food taboos are known all over the world, and some are founded in the culture’s religion (such as the ban on consuming pork in Judaism as well as in Islam, and the ban on eating beef in Hinduism), while others reflect memories of past contaminations (and historians speculate that perhaps most food taboos have such contamination fears as their point of origin).

 But some of the food taboos in a modern, largely secular culture such as ours are neither founded in religion nor based on past memories of contaminants. It isn’t inherently any more unhealthy to eat horse, dog, or cat that it is to eat beef, but most of us wouldn’t dream of serving or eating those animals, because we regard them as pets, and even as family members. So there is the familiarity factor, and the cuteness factor, but of course the food taboo can also include a “Yuck” factor such as in our reluctance to eat rats. (And how about snails? Oysters? Prairie oysters? Depends on what we’re used to. When the eponimous hero in the movie Tom Horn is served lobster for the first time, he quips, “I’ve never eaten a bug that big.”)

Our legislation doesn’t always reflect such taboos, or is even clear about the prohibitions, and the reasoning behind them. We can’t slaughter, serve or eat dogs and cats. Up until 2011 a horse could not be slaughtered (for human consumption) in the US, but Congress did not extend the ban which then expired.

  In Nov. 2011, Congress decided not to extend a ban on USDA horse meat inspections. Over the five years prior to that, Congress banned the USDA from using any taxpayer funds for horse slaughter inspections through its annual budget appropriations for the department. And since the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect animals for slaughter, carcass by carcass, there was no way for horses to make it to American dinner tables.

 But since the ban has been lifted, there still are no protocols for the USDA to conduct equine inspections.

 “Despite a November 2011 decision by Congress not to extend the ban on horse slaughter, the USDA says there are no establishments in the United States that slaughter horses.

“It is a hugely political issue – it has to do with the slaughter of horses and whether that’s acceptable to U.S. society or not – and so there are two sides to the argument,” said William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

 Opponents of horse slaughter essentially say eating horses is not part of American culture, equating it to the slaughter of other pets.

 “We have a 250 year relationship in the United States with horses and eating them has never been a part of the equation,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “It would be quite a turn in the road to view animals who helped us settle the country as an appetizer or main course.” “

 But didn’t oxen also help us settle the country? Those big Conestoga wagons were sometimes pulled by oxen. And oxen have pulled plows. Every time we eat a steak or a burger, we bite into the remains of a steer. Some gratitude! The fact remains that our food taboos are selective, and based on feelings as well as tradition and convenience. Some people won’t eat “anything with a face.” Some won’t eat anything with a cute face. Some will eat anything as long as it no longer has a face. How do you feel about the horse meat issue? Would you eat horse? Why or why not? And is there an inherent moral difference between eating horse, beef, pork, snake, kangaroo, or grubs? Not to mention “long pig”? Let’s assume that none of the species are endangered…So where do we draw the line? At the level of intelligence, a Kantian response? Pigs are far more intelligent than horses, according to the experts. How about according to the amount of suffering, a utilitarian approach? If emotional suffering (=fear) counts, then we all know what “Silence of the lambs” means, and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has taught us that the fear factor is very high in animals being led to the slaughter. How about another utilitarian angle, a distinction between the suffering of one animal feeding many people vs. the suffering of one animal feeding just a few? (A steer vs. a chicken, for example). (Or how about the choice of ethical egoism: satisfy your own needs in pursuit of your own happiness?) Regardless of our underlying moral theory we make choices, and they are grounded partly in our traditions, and partly in our feelings, rarely in dispassionate logic. So granted that our cultural choices of food are more driven by emotion than other considerations (unless we’re starving), then at what point does your food ethic kick in?