In this week's installment of Tabletop Wrestling, omnivore Beth Maxey and vegetarian Gwen Elliott square off over horsemeat, which has lately been discovered in burgers, pre-made lasagnas and frozen moussakas across Europe.
Beth Maxey believes eaters shouldn't shun horsemeat.
Why should you eat horsemeat? Because other people do.
Admitted that is not always sound logic, but here's my thinking: I eat largely to explore and experience new cultures. People all over the world eat horse. So, I figured I should too.
I first encountered horsemeat in rural Italy. My roommate and I stupidly asked where we could take riding lessons--which seemed like the perfect icing on the living-in-Italy-cake--and our landlord said to ask the butcher across the street. I chalked it up to language differences: I thought he didn't understand.
And then I had my Godfather moment. I was standing next to the window when the slaughter truck arrived. And in an instant I realized that our landlord had understood after all. A whole new meaning to Italian Stallion.
Eating horse--or meat at all--seems wrong for many people, and I respect that. But for many it doesn't, and I respect that too. My husband likes to eat fish eyeballs. I'm pretty adventurous, but I'm not into that, so I understand people have limits, and morals, and friends called Flicka. Which is the point. We are all different. We eat different things. Because I like that freedom, I'm wary of reinforcing, no less legislating against taboos. In California, it is a criminal offense to offer horsemeat as food.
I did eventually try horsemeat. I like it, especially raw. It's tasty, lean and sweet, somewhere between ahi tuna (and certainly more abundant) and steak tartare. Still, horse is no bacon. But it is arguably as important a protein in human evolution. Wild horsemeat was essential to early nomadic humans. It was cultivated in Rome (and is still enjoyed throughout Italy, especially in Venice), is popular and prized in Japan, Belgium and France, and was originally the meat used for what we now know as pastrami. It is the favorite meat of Kazakhstan!
Horsemeat is also closer to home. It sustained those rugged folks that pioneered our now nicely urbanized Northwest and horsemeat from Montana used to be sold in Pike Place Market during WWII --where it was popular because it was USDA inspected but not rationed, when beef was. I called Don and Joes yesterday and they referred me to another butcher who was thinking about carrying it.
Last year, Congress lifted a five-year federal ban of horse slaughter--in the form of refunding USDA inspection for the practice. Before the ban, the US was the world's fifth largest exporter of horsemeat in the world. The ban did not end horse slaughter, but instead resulted in shipping 150,000-plus live animals--arguably the least humane part of the process-- a year to Canada and Mexico for slaughter before the meat could be shipped to Japan and someone's plate.
Correct labeling, humane slaughter and meat safety are always important. On Monday, the president of the Humane Society printed an Op-Ed in the New York Times in which he argued that there is insufficient documentation on the veterinary drugs that these horses--which are not bred exclusively for meat--have received during their lifetime, making their meat unsafe for humans to eat. If this is true, instead of disposing of upwards of 150,000 horses whose meat would have been enjoyed and provided billions of dollars of revenue for which a hungry market exists, let's think about ways to track the medical histories of horses destined for slaughter and make that meat safe. This is the age of the radio-frequency identification.
A month after the federal ban on horse slaughter was lifted, Snohomish County upheld a ban against horse slaughter for human consumption. Still, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska, Idaho and Montana are working on re-opening slaughter facilities. In addition to pastured horses, wild horses have to be managed. Their populations have been doubling every four years.
The Ikea horse meat controversy offers critical perspective on the habitual practice of meat consumption. A pot roast or steak once held a reverent place at the table: it indicated enough room in the budget to afford a meal of "luxury." Now, in many places, meat is as cheap as Ikea's press board furniture. This industrialized, "cheap meat" culture is riddled with adverse consequences, and consumer mislabeling is just a drop in the bucket.
Americans are quick to judge the eating lifestyles of other countries, but there's no higher morality to eating beef and pork than horse meat; any difference one may observe on the American dinner plate as opposed to someone else's in Iceland or Korea is merely cultural. Meat is meat. If you eat it, you are implicit in whatever was involved rendering what was once a living creature into a meatball.
But what is so telling about the recent horse meat "scandal" is the public's visceral response to being duped. It is customary in Europe and Asia to eat such animals--horse, dog--so the idea that Ikea's meatballs contain horse meat should not be much of a surprise, but because so many meat eaters continue to live in ignorance of the reality of meat production, those same consumers feel manipulated.
Yet also, because of developments like this, consumers are forced to look inside the slaughterhouse. The meat packing industry is violent and, as we see here, highly exploitative. There's no conceivable way to supply the world's growing taste for meat--especially in countries with burgeoning middle classes like China and Brazil--than often, to acquire it by any means necessary. If that means adding horse meat, pink slime, or other nefarious, often cancer-causing byproducts somewhere in the process, rest assured that has happened and will continue to.
Processed at such a scale, there is the undeniable reality of animal suffering. There are environmental issues tying into climate change and pollution, including cess pools of toxic animal excrement at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). There are over 7,000 children who starve to death every day, while rainforests continue to be slashed and burned to raise livestock, land that requires far more acreage to feed just one animal than if it were used to grow grain for humans, which could adequately feed far more people. If you're alarmed to hear that 80 percent of the world's forest cover has been lost to deforestation (the World Preservation Foundation's estimate), just ask McDonald's about it.
Ikea shares McDonald's role in offering cheap products to a consuming public hungry for little else than "the cheapest." Their products transfer the true cost of production elsewhere--to the environment, exploited animals, and future generations. But hey, if you can't live without those $3.99 meatballs, perhaps Ikea will go the way of the hot dog and replace their horse meat filler with sawdust; I know they've got a lot of that.