Disgust, the gag reflex and flights to the vomitorium greeted this week’s news that horse flesh had breached the beef wall to contaminate burgers and frozen beef meals (lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, meatballs) all over Europe. Some of the “beef” products contained 100 percent horsemeat, and early forensic tests hinted that the contamination might go back as far as August 2012.
Both the British government and the European Union called for “horsemeat summits” to investigate the food scandal, with British officials surmising that a criminal conspiracy would be found responsible for adulterating beef products with cheaper horse. But for all the horsemeat hysteria recorded and amplified by the press, “no risk to consumer health” was posed by the products, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported. The injuries from eating horsemeat were not physical, they were psychological, and where they were not psychological they were anthropological, or else simply nonexistent. According to the Ireland health authority, every beef-and-horse burger it analyzed tested negative for phenylbutazone, a common horse medicine that’s banned from the food chain.
Horsemeat — as those who have sampled its pleasures will attest — should not be feared. Looked at rationally, it’s merely the other, other red meat, as our French cousins are forever reminding us. It’s a domesticated and hooved grass and grain eater with a tail, big eyes and a tannable hide, just like the cattle that most of us consume. That’s not to suggest that the folks who were sold horse burgers when they paid for beef burgers have no right to gripe. They were defrauded and deserve refunds, a few pennies’ worth of damages and the satisfaction of seeing the defrauders (if the contamination was deliberate) sent to jail. But that’s about it.
Explaining the outrage and media storm over the horsemeat scandal will send many journalists to their lexicons to retrieve the word “taboo” to decode the current panic. But I don’t think “taboo” adequately describes the aversion of some people and some cultures to a food that is so similar to one they eat several times a day — and which most of them, as the current scandal illustrates, can’t tell from the real thing when smothered in sauce or grilled for a sandwich. “Food Taboos: Their Origins and Purposes,” a 2009 article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine by Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow, notes that most human cultures avoid harvestable or easily slaughtered edible items all the time. The Ache people of the Paraguayan jungle limit themselves to only 50 of the several hundred animal species in their habitat, and only 40 of the available plants, fruits and insects. “Ninety-eight percent of the calories in the diet of the Ache are supplied by only 17 different food sources,” Meyer-Rochow writes.
Avoidance of a potential food can turn into a taboo, especially when enforced by a group’s religious, spiritual or cultural rules. Observant Jews, Muslims and Hindus, as well as Catholics guided by Lent, will eschew certain foods in accordance with their dietary laws and beliefs. Some of these laws can be linked to the protection of human health, resource management and group cohesion, as Meyer-Rochow notes. The suppression of horse eating in the West can be blamed on Pope Gregory III who, in 723, called the practice “a “filthy and abominable custom” and associated it with pagan practices. Back then, horse eaters could be punished with a penance of four years on bread and water.