London mayor praises horse meat

London mayor Boris Johnson wonders why the British don't like horse meat, which the French eat loads of.

Amazing! Here are two nations, with roughly the same level of civilisation, with a densely interwoven history, a cognate language – but who have entered the internet age with radically different ideas about eating humanity’s eternal helpmeet. In fact, the further you whizz around the world, the more unusual the British scruple seems to be. From Mexico to Kazakhstan, you find people eating horse flesh – and the Chinese manage to chomp through an astonishing 1.7 million gee-gees every year.

This is in reference to last week's revelation that the "beef" in British microwave meal manufacturer Findus's "Beef Lasagne" was in fact 100% horse meat, supplied by the French.

Now, farbeit from me to argue with Boris's well-taken point about delicious horse. The fact remains, however, that the problem here is not horse meat. The problem is mystery horse beef. Put simply, people in Britain eating processed food cannot be certain they know what they are eating, and a degree of anxiety about this situation is quite reasonable.


  1. The good thing about all this is it’s cleared up what happened to Shergar.  Bugged me for years, that.

    1. You should have:

      1) Richard III’s bones are discovered.
      2) Horsemeat floods the UK.
      3) Profit.

      It’s all so elegant in its simplicity.

      1. So, when Richard III was all, A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, Richmond was down the field, selling the nag to some travelling Romanian horse-traders?  Who cleverly repackaged it as lasagna and sold to right back to those same beef-witted lords? Yeah, that must have been in one of the quarto versions.

  2. I am amazed(or impressed, if this is deliberate, which wouldn’t entirely surprise me) at how efficiently the narrative has largely moved into a “Eww, eating horses is yucky! vs. No, just look at all the fine horse eaters of the world, what’s not to like?” one rather than the rather more important

    “Hey, did you know that your allegedly-safe food has a supply chain that even an international arms smuggler would describe as ‘downright byzantine and overtly sleazy’?” problem.

    1. “…preliminary investigation by the French agency that combats consumer fraud had uncovered the Byzantine route taken by the “fake” beef.

      It came from abattoirs in Romania through a dealer in Cyprus working through another dealer in Holland to a meat plant in the south of France which sold it to a French-owned factory in Luxembourg which made it into frozen meals sold in supermarkets in 16 countries.”

      Totally deliberate.

    2. Quite. I imagine a shouty scotsman looking like a cross between Peter Capaldi and Alastair Campbell, charging round an office shouting “F*CK, F*CK! I know, blame it on the French and get Boris to make some ridiculous statement”.

      It is extraordinary the way this has been spun from a major food health crisis into a joking discussion about all those funny foreigners and their funny eating habits. Bet you didn’t know Findus fishfingers are made out of snails and frogs legs, did you!

    3. The FAKE BEEF came through a byzantine path that a money launderer would find pretty familiar. In other words, part of the scheme here was that it was “laundered” until it could be passed off as beef.

      This is bad actors acting badly, not “an entire industry is filled with bad actors”.

      Turning it into a poisoning panic creates a circus sideshow that distracts from the situation.

    4. Somebody caught a runaway horse in Ireland.  When they checked its chip, it had supposedly been slaughtered.  Because there’s an industry that switches passports between smaller, clean horses and larger, non-food-grade horses.

      1. An Irish horse passport can be forged with a printing kit costing a fiver and a 12 pence chip. An old nag full of phenylbutazone (or whatever) can be picked up for 10 or 20 quid, its passport switched, and sold on for 500 quid. That said, the Irish horse meat industry is worth only 6 million a year.

        1. I read somewhere today that 70,000 horses who should be in the system in Ireland are no longer locatable.

    5.  Yeah, after all the other crazy crap that’s turned up in European food products over the years, from prions to PCBs, is it any wonder people might be concerned?

  3. Oh Boris, You’re my favorite fluff-haired loon. Seriously, he’s mad as a bag of hammers, and he’s still probably the most sane politician in the UK.

    His Olympic welcome was truly excellent, though.

    1.  If a dinner is labeled “chicken” and turns out to have pork in it instead of chicken, this has implications for quite a few people.

      First off is the plain and simple thing that some people don’t like to eat pork. Some people are prohibited from eating pork for religious reasons. Some people can’t eat pork for medical reasons. All of us are entitled to know that it’s pork, not chicken, because we tried to buy a chicken meal and got pork instead.

      It’s about fraud. Especially if you’re buying one thing and get a cheaper second thing substituted.

  4. On a list from 2009 of the top 17 nations that produce horse meat France is 13. Mexico is no.1 which is food for thought for those who travel south of the border. Canada is no. 8! Donkeys are included in some of the figures.

    1. That’s partially because Mexico and Canada are slaughtering all US horses destined for slaughter, too. The horse slaughter ban in the US doesn’t prevent horses from being slaughtered, it simply redirects all profit and regulatory oversight to our neighboring countries who do process horses.

      1.  Yes, but horse meat is sold for human consumption in Canada. The more you look into the slaughtering/selling/exporting of horse meat, the uglier it looks. U.S. exporters sell drugged race horses for slaughter e.g. and the BLM has sold 1,700 wild mustangs for $10 a head to a Colorado livestock hauler who skirts around the laws to ultimately sell them for slaughter.

  5. While I completely agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating horsemeat, an acquaintance of mine living in the UK had been having health problems for a while now, and has now traced the problem to eating British “beef” products. It turns out she has some sort of sensitivity to horse meat. This underlines that the “mystery horse beef” problem isn’t just one of consumers eating something they don’t want to be eating; not knowing what you’re eating can be a serious health hazard for people with food sensitivities and allergies.

    1. I was going to post a similar point.  Horsemeat is a relatively common allergen (as far as meat allergens go).  If we excuse risking the lives and health of a few unfortunate people sensitive to horsemeat then we are basically saying that consumers don’t need to know what is going into their food.  It’s a dangerous road to go down.

  6. To quote Boris himself, “I couldn’t fail to disagree with you less”.

    Parse it and weep, proles!

    1. That has to be one of the ugliest sentences ever composed in the English language.  And here I thought it was we USians who would torture the language past the breaking point.

      1. I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

    2. Okay. “I couldn’t agree less” would mean he disagrees, right? Add a “dis” in there, then it means he agrees. The add a “fail to” and it flips again to disagreement, is that right?

    3. He’s using the Royal Subjunctive.  If you ask me if it’s going to rain tomorrow, I’ll reply, “Yes.”  The Prince of Wales will say, “Well, one wouldn’t not think that, would one?”

  7. “It’s a tragedy people have to eat horses. They’re beautiful animals. Ever peek at a cow or a pig? They’re ugly. We’re doing them a favor by eating them. Saves them the agony of looking at their reflections in the trough but a horse, that’s a noble beast.”
    -Colonel Sherman T. Potter

    That quote immediately came to mind, although, even when I first heard it at a much younger age I suspected that cows and pigs might feel that we’re not that much to look at either. 

    1. People who think horses are specially beautiful need their heads examined. Gangly legged, knobby kneed, gawky headed, and wall eyed. :D

      There’s lovely looking horses and stupid looking horses, just like there are lovely looking cows and mean looking cows, or beautifully ornamental chickens and chickens that look sort of like a feathery sack with a head and feet.

      Appearance doesn’t have (very) much to do with whether the animal tastes good, makes a good companion, or does good work.

      I think it’s more a problem that some people can only imagine horses as companion animals (a pretty popular childhood fantasy) and eating companions is naturally taboo. Stinks too much of cannibalism. There’s a big difference between a pet pig and an eating pig, and I don’t see why there shouldn’t be one for horses as well.

  8. “Suppose you are a Martian anthropologist.”
    He certainly would look forward to Grokking you in fullness, Boris.

  9. Here are two nations, with roughly the same level of civilisation, …

    Hahaha!  Oh, sorry.

    [ducks the Anglophiles’ projectiles]

      1. He was thinking that the two nations have roughly the same level of civilisation — which is funny, but probably not to him.

  10. I am a horse lover…I am engaged in a horse rescue operation here in France. I take care of anywhere from 18 to 27 horses at a time and that involved saving them from neglect, rehabilitating them, in many cases saving them from the butcher and finding them new homes. It’s a lot of work. I have a barn full of hay and feed them in the snow and mud…I have horses on three rented parcels of land…but, hey, I have eaten horse. I can go to my local rural coop super market and buy horse meat. That’s not the issue. It’s the breakdown in the multi national food chain. It’s not what we eat, it’s where it comes from and how it gets there and the lack of accountability. I love horses. I have had many very close ongoing relationships with horses. I have a 2 horses for over 15 years I love, but I will admit to eating horse meat and enjoying it. Am I sick, or what…what does this say about the hysterical hypocrisy of Americans…how many of you jerks have started an adopt a cow program?

    1. Who is calling you sick now?  As a USian I support you in eating whatever kind of animals you want.  (Please obtain consent before eating other human beings.)

    2. If you have eaten horse meat, and are OK with the practice of eating horse meat, when why bother to save horses that were destined for the butcher? Rescuing a food-animal from neglect or abuse I can understand, but if one is willing to designate an animal as ‘meat’ then why go to the trouble from stopping that fate?

      “…how many of you jerks have started an adopt a cow program?” I’ve had friends in grade school that raised calves for 4H fairs. That’s pretty close to adoption. And plenty of farmers and cattlemen go above and beyond what’s necessary to take care of livestock. But I’ve never heard of someone who eats beef rescuing a cow from slaughter.

      1. Sometimes the beef rescues itself. The five vignettes on that page pretty much cover the gamut of reasons to rescue cattle or surrender them to no-kill facilities (in the U.S.): affection, financial duress, chronic ill-health, and hosts who can no longer keep their companion animals. (Oh yeah — and chutzpah!)

        1. I fully support adopting an animal that had the gumption to attempt a jail break and succeed. Jefferson deserves his ‘call from the governor.’

          “Meh” to the Holsteins and Digger. That was the owners’ decision. I am personally against veal crating, and abstain from veal for that reason. The rescued veal calf gets a hand wave. I wouldn’t put any in a ‘definitely do not slaughter’ mental group though.

  11. When you use Mexico, Kazakhstan, and China as yardsticks of what’s acceptable to eat, you may as well not bother with a yardstick at all.

    I don’t know where the British taboo against horsemeat comes from — Battle of Hastings maybe?  But the American reverence for the horse is definitely rooted in the era where if you got stuck without one somewhere in the West, you were truly fucked. Unlike Europe, the vast majority of North America was untraversable without one.  Did any other country have summary execution as the default punishment for horse theft?

    1. Most countries, including the US, had summary execution for pretty much any crime that was likely to be committed by “little people”.

      Anyway, if Kazakhstan doesn’t have a taboo against eating horsemeat, I guarantee respect and need for horses doesn’t factor into it.  Our horse culture is a joke in comparison to theirs.

      I expect that our squeamishness is inherited from English squeamishness, and English squeamishness about food seems to extend to be squeamishness about food in general, which must be boiled into unrecognizible grey paste before it can be safely consumed…

      1. I should mention an interesting point: that Kazakhs apparently don’t give their horses anthropomorphic names.

        There’s a neat segment on Kazakh eagle hunting (in Mongolia) in “The Human Planet” series.  I think that’s where I picked that factoid up.

        1. There’s a difference between nomadic tribes who travel with their clans and probably cultivate their herds and thus have spare old horses to eat, and Lonesome Cowboys trying to get from Albuquerque to Flagstaff. 

          It’s possible I’m being suckered in by a mythology but absent evidence to the contrary it seems to fit the evidence at hand.

          1. Perhaps there’s a point where you are so reliant on an animal that you can’t afford any sentimentalization of it.

          2. I think this is more the problem: When you say “eat horses” people think you’re going into the barn and shooting some 10 year old girl’s pet pony for steaks.

            Eatin’ horses are end-of-life horses, preferably work horses. Age and work improves their meat quality, instead of degrading it like with cattle and sheep. Young horse isn’t tender – old horse that’s lived a full life is tender.

    2. As to Hastings, seems unlikely to me.  The Celts, on both sides of the channel, were a horse culture: the Normans must have picked it up from the local French, since the Norse were decidedly not.

      There may be something to the fact that maintaining horses on a small island was a more expensive allocation of resources than doing so in a larger (warmer) continental nation.

      But I think food taboos are more likely than not completely random: attempts to pin them down to some practical, selective force seem to fall apart on examination.  For instance, the idea that anti-pork taboos were driven by sensible fear of trichinosis ignores the fact that far more successful cultures ate pork with abandon.

      Closer to home, food taboos (of the “ick” vs. Halal variety) were common and completely contradictory in adjacent tribal villages in northern California.  I think in a lot of ways they provide a shibboleth to cultures, rather than a material benefit.

    3. I don’t think you are. From my (limited) experience with family living out in Wyoming and Montana, horses were an essential animal that were definitely part of the family. More than  a dog, in my family’s mind horses were the loyal pet that saw you through when shit hit the fan.

      Growing up in northern NJ – a very urban state – I *still* had neighbors who relied on horses when a big snow storm blocked out all the roads and power lines.

  12. I don’t see anywhere in the piece that Johnson is dismissing concerns over disclosure of food ingredients, or saying that issue shouldn’t be rectified, just that he’s using the news to prompt an exploration of cultural taboos. Which is interesting enough. Don’t see the problem with it..

    1.  It doesn’t seem relevant to the policy debate.  One might see it as trying to derail a perfectly legitimate criticism of government oversight of food quality in the UK.

      I mean it’s cool if Boris wants to smoke up and get on some philosophical trip but he can do that with his buddies at home or at the pub, right?

  13. Personally, I hate the “But they do it” argument.  I love the fact the different people have different customs, beliefs, foods, languages, etc.  So what if it’s often weird or illogical?  A world with everyone looking, eating, acting, and thinking the same is a sad, sad world.

    Note: liking differences doesn’t mean liking or condoning what people do.  Respecting differences and being able to debate relative merits is a good thing.  And fun.  “But they do it” should carry no weight in a debate.

  14. What bugs me here in America is we think ourselves oh, so enlightened for stamping out the use of horsemeat, when all that’s accomplished is to get lots of old horses abandoned. If we set our sentimentality aside and made sure horses were well looked after while alive, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass whether the horses were eaten afterwards. Or by whom. 

  15. The relatively anglo-centric taboo against eating horsemeat has always fascinated me. It seems to come down to perceptions of ethics. Obviously, vegetarians and vegans feel that it’s wrong to eat any animal. Whereas some cultures will eat any animal. 

    But omnivores in some cultures seem to have a block against eating creatures like horses and dogs, who have been close companions of humans for thousands of years. Ask someone about it and they’ll likely start with some colloquial rhetoric about not eating their friends, as if there is a formal alliance with these particular animals.

    I’m not a psychologist/sociologist/anthropologist by any means, but I’m fascinated how these taboos develop, because to me they seem less based on “ew, that’s gross” but rather more “no, that’s wrong”. 

    1.  There’s a lot of overlap between “gross” and “wrong.”  Ref pretty much any food taboos (and every culture has them even if they differ).  Also, taboos about homosexuality and menstruation which appear in almost every culture.

      I think there’s lots of reasons to suspect that for most if not all humans the part of the brain that finds things gross is wired into the part of the brain that decides things are morally wrong.

      1. Taboos about homosexuality don’t appear in almost every culture; they appear in most major religions. Big difference.

    2.  Dog-eating cultures, to my knowledge, don’t eat their companion dogs. They have specific breeds for the purpose, and they are raised as food animals, not as housepets.

      Not terribly surprisingly, though; we’ve bred dogs for every other purpose, it makes sense to breed dogs to be good for eating.

    3. Curiosity got the best of me and I ended up coming across this interesting tidbit:

      Food avoidances and taboos have historically been based on religion, or have functioned to demonstrate social status differences between individuals and social groupings. Although Leviticus is silent on the specific issue of horse, in 723, Pope Gregory III indicated that the eating of horses was a ‘filthy and abominable custom’ in his instructions to Boniface, Bishop to the Germans. In Ireland, the Canones hibernenses, which date from the 7th century, impose an unusually harsh penance of 4 y on bread and water for the consumption of horsemeat.The explanation of this nonbiblically based Canon Law is that the consumption of horsemeat was associated with pre-Christian Celtic and Teutonic religious sacrifice.
      The church condemnation of horsemeat consumption was directed to suppressing pagan practices and distinguishing the Christian from the heathen

      1. Leviticus doesn’t need to be specific about horses. Their hooves aren’t cloven and they cheweth not the cud.

  16. Rob, you’re kidding yourself: the only reason you’re writing about this is because of the UK media shitstorm, and the only reason for that is because of the British aversion to eating horse flesh.

    Food is mislabelled all the time, and most of the time nobody gives a shit.
    In the US, for example, there’s been a major problem with fish being passed off as other, higher quality fish for years.Tests show between 20% and 50% of all fish sold in the US is mislabelled.
    I’ll wager you didn’t have a clue about that because it wasn’t front page news, and it will never be front page news until testing shows that people are actually eating Flipper steaks and Free Willy sashimi.

    1. ?  Does not follow.  Rob can be sincere about criticizing food quality oversight in the case of horses without having been aware of the fish mislabeling problem.  This comes across as a sort of hipster posturing (“I was worried about mislabeled food before it was cool”).

    2. Absolutely.”People in Britain eating processed food cannot be certain they know what they are eating”.
      Happens all the time. We’ve just fostered an entire strata of over-concerned, public-display (mostly) parents who work themselves into a tizzy if something isn’t ‘labelled’ correctly.
      If they were that concerned about what they eat they’d go live on a farm where they can grow their own GM/pesticide-free veg (good luck with that), raise their own meat and slaughter it by their own hand.
      But that’s too much like hard work. They’d rather sit behind their laptops, ordering from Waitrose Online and kvetch about the percentages of whatever in their whatever.

  17. hmm. A high level politician defending the actions of big corporations after their lies are exposed resulting in a public relations snafu. How novel.

  18. I love me some horse, but I have very few food taboos. The problem here is the intentional deception and mislabeling. I’d be happy to eat housecat. If the package says housecat but actually contains yellowdog, that’s a problem.

    Edit: I’d be pissed if I bought turkey and it was chicken. I’d be more pissed if I couldn’t tell the difference, but that’s different.

      1. “…it’s practically impossible that such cheap meat would have undergone the regular quality controls and -standards.”

        I wouldn’t go so far there. At least here in the states we have the USDA which inspects every slaughterhouse for every animal. Even small farmers have to register their operations with the USDA and are inspected regularly. No matter how cheap the meat is, we have some line of accountability. I’m not saying that this is the best scenario, but at least it offers some sort of paper trail, or meat trail. All the small trim and undesirable bits that are destined for pet food or Spam or soup mixes etc came from animals that at some point crossed paths with an agent.

        tl;dr even dog food gets inspected

    1. Bingo. It’s different from ordering one meal in a restaurent and getting another due to a kitchen error. It’s more like ordering say, lasagna, getting tortellini, and the restaurent staff insisting that “lasagna” is in fact meat stuffed into little folded dumplings. Well, no, it isn’t, and this whole thing is really fishy.

      (I’m not terribly picky in the way of species, but I may fuss over preparation, or how it was acquired.)

  19. I KNOW the Brits love to wear shell cordovan shoes (it’s amazing leather), soo..
    But, still.  I like to know what’s in my food.

    1.  I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with eating horsemeat. The British use glue and gelatin too.

  20. I have to muse aloud…is poor inspection what allows the organic culture to flourish in England to a greater degree than in the US? Here we have a SERIOUS organic to regular cost gap…is it lower in the UK, and if so does that have to do with quality of inspection? I know the UK labeling standards are much stricter, but if you’re skirting them, does that matter anymore? 

    1. Yes.
      The main arse-about-tit problem with ‘organic’ here in UK is that a huge amount of foods that are produced organically are not allowed to be sold as such. Because they come from very small suppliers who cannot afford the fees that registering as officially Organic incur.
      Our entire commercial ‘Organic Food’ culture is all about the paperwork and the money raised for Central Government and very little to do with actual food quality.
      Labelling counts for very little here, in real terms. People have just been fooled into believing the hype. When something like this comes to light it gives them an excuse to get their knickers in a twist in public.

  21. Boris Johnson’s lack of concern at the idea of eating horse makes sense if you remember that he was educated at Eton College in the 1980s. After five years of British school food, the idea of chowing down on a nice piece of well-prepared horse probably doesn’t seem in the least bit intimidating.

  22. It’s not like the horse was unsafe to eat, microbially or by merit of its horsiness. It’s not like you ordered halal and they tricked you into eating pig. It’s not like anyone actually thought those bargain barrel beans were really ‘magic’ beans. It’s not like the people on the warpath are the ones who actually bought or ate these dinners. It’s not like most of them even eat meat. It’s not like cows are the only bovines. It’s not like the word ‘beef’ is specific to cows. It’s not like you could make these complaints with a straight face if the mystery meat was venison or buffalo (also a ‘beef’ product). It’s not like most grocery store food – animal and plant – doesn’t contain trace amounts of insect. It’s not like they advertise that fact. It’s not like anyone could taste the difference. It’s not like your body knows the difference between generic and brand name prescription drugs. You buy the latter so that if something goes wrong, you have a deeper pocket to sue. I know that an All-Beef American Hot Dog probably contains little to no beef, despite its pious protestation. I know because it costs 1/10 the price of its weight in bona fide beef. I’m with you – it sucks to be 100% lied to. But if you didn’t already have your suspicions, you’re pretty naive.

    1. It’s not like the horse was unsafe to eat, microbially or by merit of its horsiness.

      It was unsafe to eat because some of it contains a drug that’s not safe for humans.

      It’s not like most grocery store food – animal and plant – doesn’t contain trace amounts of insect.

      Quite a few of the samples contained 100% horse meat, not “trace amounts”.

      Not sure the point of your comment.

  23. Part of a possible explanation, from a Norwegian saga:

    “The holy king Olaf made the folk of the west become christian, and bid them build a church on that place where now is a priest’s steading.

    The chief Thorstein (Stone of Thor) lived on his farm close by. He was cutting hay with his scythe on the marshes when the messenger came from the king to bid him to let himself be made christian and join in the building of a church. Thorstein was so upset by the demand that folks for centuries to come could see the deep furrows in the marshes after each cut of the scythe  which he swung in his rage.

    Finally he threw his scythe down, took an axe and swore that if the tree he was now going to fell would not serve as door post in this church, he would do no more work on the building.

    The tree was felled, and the chief carried it himself like a staff in his hand to the king, who was overjoyed and made his craftsmen cut a doorstep out of it and place it in the church.But Olaf was not fully satisfied with Thorstein. While the work was done, Thorstein had made provisions for himself out of a large ham of a horse, and would not let go of it, no matter what the king told him against the eating of horse. Thorstein did not object to anything the king Olav told him about the White Christ, but that you weren’t allowed to eat horse meat, he could not understand at all.

    And ever since, horse meat is only used in sausage, where you normally can’t tell it’s there.

    The saying is: The sausage is divine, for only God knows what’s in it.”

    In other words: In germanic cultures, horse was normally eaten as part of the sacrificial feasts. The first christian kings persecuted the folk religion, and with it the eating of horse meat. There was a time when eating horse could get you hanged as a pagan. Old taboos persist. No such conflict in romanesque France.

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