This winter, inspectors in the United Kingdom discovered horse meat in a variety of meat products labeled beef, setting off a battery of DNA tests there and all over Europe to determine just how widely the “horse meat scandal” extended. While some European countries do eat horse—France, notably—the American media generally reacted with horror across the board. Horse meat has occasionally been on the menu in the United States—during wartime, and, oddly, at the faculty club of Harvard until the 1980s. But in this country, no horses are currently processed for human consumption. A horse slaughtering plant in New Mexico is currently pending approval, the Department of Agriculture, but if it goes through, that meat will be shipped to diners abroad.
It may be surprising to realize, however, that even in France, hippophagy (or the eating of horse meat) was not legalized until the latter part of the 19th century—the result of a public campaign to override objections very like the ones Americans have today. At the time, officials justified the practice with arguments similar to those being put forward in New Mexico: Horse is a perfectly healthy meat, it avoids waste, and it might even be good for the welfare of the animals. But the fact that it took so much persuasion to convince the French to consider eating horse—in a dispute that exposed passionate beliefs about public health, animal rights, and social welfare—suggests why we are once again facing a public scandal over hippophagy. At heart, it is an unsettled cultural crisis about which animals we accept as moral to eat.