How Americans Think: About Horsemeat, For Example

by David Beriss

Photo by David Beriss

Should the slaughter of horses for food be permitted in the United States?  This question was raised recently when the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would permit horse slaughter in the U.S. for the first time since 2007. Back in 2006, Congress passed a bill that prohibited the USDA from inspecting horse slaughterhouses, which effectively stopped all horse slaughter in the country. This November legislators passed a measure to allow inspections to restart.  President Obama signed the bill and inspections (and thus slaughter) are again legal.  So far, no horse slaughterhouses have opened.  But it could happen and if it does, it will be controversial.

The first thing Americans often ask when they hear about horse slaughter is whether or not horse is actually good to eat. At the risk of being called horrid names, let me confess that I have eaten horse—in France, where they serve horse and have specialized “boucheries chevalines”—and I don’t remember anything special about it.  It was much like beef.  Horse is consumed in many countries in both Europe and Asia.  Anthropologists who visited Montreal in November might have tried the steak tartare at the “Frites Alors!” Belgian-style French fry chain there, which is offered in both beef and horse versions. According to the 1988 edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, steak tartare is prepared with horse “according to the purists” and in Belgium is known as “filet américain.”

This seems quite ironic since Americans generally do not eat horse. In fact, horse meat has not been consumed in the U.S. in any regular way for a very long time.  At the end of the Second World War, when beef was scarce, Americans resorted to horsemeat and Republicans ran against “Horsemeat Harry” Truman.  Again in the early 1970s, when beef prices skyrocketed under the Nixon administration, people tried horsemeat, a trend illustrated on an episode of “All in the Family.”

Today eating horsemeat  is very controversial, to the point that activists object to any law that would allow slaughter, even for consumption in other countries.  But with plenty of affordable meat in the U.S., the debate now is not really about food.  It is about a series of other issues, ranging from how Americans classify and treat animals, to how they evaluate the social and political organization of society.

There have been many controversies regarding the humane treatment of animals in the past several years.  Foie gras is one such item, condemned because of the manner in which ducks and geese are raised to produce very fat livers.  Similarly, veal is often reviled because of the treatment of calves prior to slaughter.  I suspect, however, that most opponents of these foods do not object in principle to the consumption of these animals.  If it were possible to obtain foie gras or veal without inhumane treatment, they would probably cease to object to consumption (read here about humane veal and here about humane foie gras).  Ducks, geese, sheep, and cows are all seen as livestock, raised to become food.

People have, of course, long raised objections to animal slaughter in general.  Watch, if you dare, this short 1949 documentary by French filmmaker Georges Franju, “Le Sang des Bêtes.”

It starts out like a surreal film of life on the edges of Paris, but quickly becomes a meditation on the slaughter of animals, including a horse. It is graphic, bloody and full of death.  It is worth considering, along with the conditions in which cows, sheep and poultry are raised for mass consumption in the U.S. today.  Why do horses stand out amidst the larger problems of our industrialized meat production system?

Horses are not seen as livestock.  At least not by anti-slaughter activists.  One might invoke the history of horses in the American imagination, associated as they are with everything from Paul Revere’s ride to the Wild West.  The terrible fate that awaited unwanted, lame or old horses was always the glue factory, not the slaughterhouse.  That was bad enough.  Click here to view an early Popeye cartoon about a rescued glue factory reject. Eating horses has not been central to the American equine imagination in quite a while.

Yet horses are not exactly pets either, at least not like cats and dogs.  They are still working animals, racing, pulling tourists, herding cattle, etc.  We name our horses, cats and dogs and tend to see them as having a closer relationship to us than livestock.  Horses seem to fit somewhere in between pets and livestock, neither edible nor entirely part of the family.

American horses become food when something else breaks down in their relationship to humans. They are unable to continue their other roles, due to age or infirmity. Or their humans are unable to continue to support them.  One of the motivations behind lifting the ban on horse slaughter inspections was a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office arguing that the same number of horses that had been slaughtered prior to the ban were now being shipped, often in difficult conditions, to Canada and Mexico for slaughter there.  In addition, with the recession, the number of cases of neglect or even abuse of horses has increased significantly in the U.S.  Horse rescue organizations are overwhelmed and unable to meet the need.

The GAO report recommended, among other things, re-establishing slaughter inspections as a way of addressing this problem.  This suggests that we think differently about horses, even if we do name them.  When people abandon dogs and cats, we do not slaughter them for human consumption.

It is worth noting that the debate around horse slaughter has taken on some of the same terms and concepts used in other political debates in the U.S.  For example, a video on the United Horsemen web site, a pro-slaughter group, asserts that “saying that the slaughter of horses for human consumption is wrong because we do not eat it ourselves…shows how far this country has fallen.”  They go on to claim that suppressing slaughter is the same thing as suppressing freedom.  This is, if I am not mistaken, Tea Party language.

Similarly, opponents of horse slaughter draw on the language of the left to make their points.  The Humane Society recently issued a call to action that could have come from those denouncing the banking industry, arguing that “the predatory horse slaughter industry has cash signs in its eyes, and it’s unrestrained by any compassion for these creatures. Its profiteers treat the horses like commodities on the hoof.”

Freedom horses. Horses as commodities. Somewhere between livestock and companions, horses may not be food for the American table, but they certainly show us a thing or two about how Americans think.

6 Comments

Filed under anthropology, culture, film, food policy, horsemeat, humane slaughter, Montreal

6 responses to “How Americans Think: About Horsemeat, For Example

  1. David, From a purely gastronomic point of view, horse is much more interesting than beef. It’s leaner and a little darker and has a kind of nutty flavor that’d especially nice finely ground and eaten raw. Thin slices that briefly hit the pan are equally delicious, as are fine cured shreds of horsemeat which you can find on pizzas in Italy. For those reasons alone, if we are willing to eat other animals, why not horse. If I’m not mistaken, this only allows slaugher and shipping abroad though, it’s still not legal to sell in the US, right? Shame.

  2. jeffrey ehrenreich

    well-written, very interesting and informative.

  3. Eduardo Piqueiras

    Should not the question be why we would want to kill these animals? For those who have horses and have spent much time with them as pets, they do in fact become part of the family. Clearly not like dogs or cats because of size and space, but where does it end? This isn’t China or Mexico where such needs might be argued. Why would we want to eat the Hi-Yo Silvers and Mr. Ed’s of the world if it is not absolutely necessary, just based on the companionship and love these animals provide? The economic downturn doesn’t justify our inability to care for our current population of horses…just kill them isn’t the answer and allows for the mistreatment of yet another species for our “benefit”. When are we going to start to make decisions that place us in harmony with our environment versus its constant destruction?

  4. I’ve been mooting a potential PhD on this subject for some months now as it is so fascinating. There are some very interesting anthropological angles!

  5. Pingback: How Americans Think: About Horsemeat, For Example … | Stop Horse Abuse

  6. Nadianet

    French people have been eating horse meat for a long time, I am not exactly sure as to when, but horse meat was eaten to prevent malnutrition in France centuries ago. Horse meat does not carry the diseases which other animals such as beef, pork, lamb and birds do, this is why it is possible to eat it row and is also the preferred meat for french toddlers’ feed. Furthermore, food connoissseurs appreciate its distinctive taste. Plus if you are body conscious, horse meat is one of the leanest meat you can eat.

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