Why are the British revolted by the idea of horsemeat?

Burgers and sausages on BBQ

Horsemeat has been found in beefburgers on sale in UK and Irish Republic supermarkets. But why do the British have such a revulsion over the idea of eating horsemeat?

The discovery of horse DNA in burgers in major supermarkets such as Tesco and Iceland has been met with alarm among consumers.

Horse-eating, or hippophagy, spread in Europe in the 19th Century, after famines caused several governments to license horse butcheries.

The meat is still commonly consumed in France and Belgium, as well as parts of Central Asia and South America.

So why are the British so squeamish about eating horse?

The answer

Horse eating carrots and apple
  • Horses are seen as pets
  • Historically, they were useful for transport and war
  • There are emotional connotations

There is no real logic as to why plenty of Britons are perfectly willing to eat cows, pigs, and chickens, but see horses as taboo, according to Dr Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who runs the Animal Behaviour Centre.

"I'm a farmer and there is an irony. Why are horses different from pigs and lambs?" he says.

Part of the reason is people frequently see horses as pets, and humans tend to put "extra qualities and values" on animals they call pets, he says.

"As soon as you give an animal a name, how can you eat it? I've got lambs, sheep, with names - they live forever. I don't name the commercial flock, which won't," he says.

Quite the fashion

Horse-meat butcher in Paris

From Curiosities of Food by Peter Lund Simmonds, published 1859

At Paris, where all eccentricities are found and even encouraged, one of the latest gastronomic innovations is the use of horse-flesh.

This social phenomenon of making the horse contribute to the nourishment of the human race is not altogether new. The ancient Germans and Scandinavians had a marked liking for horse-flesh. The nomad tribes of Northern Asia make horse-flesh their favourite food.

With the high ruling prices of butcher's meat, what think you, gentlemen and housekeepers, of horse flesh as a substitute for beef and mutton?

Banquets of horse-flesh are at present the rage in Paris, Toulouse and Berlin. The veterinary schools there pronounce horse-bone soup preferable beyond measure to the old-fashioned beef-bone liquid, and much more economical.

History is also responsible for attitudes towards horses, according to Mugford.

"Horses helped out in warfare. There have been huge sacrifices alongside riders in historic battles. And there are sentimental depictions like War Horse," he says.

Their widespread use as working animals has had a lasting effect, argues food historian Ivan Day.

"We have to remember at one point, before railways, horses were the main means of transport. You don't eat your Aston Martin," he says.

Food historian Dr Annie Gray agrees the primary reasons for not eating horses were "their usefulness as beast of burden, and their association with poor or horrid conditions of living".

She suspects the practical considerations have become so embedded in culinary norms that horseflesh has garnered emotional connotations.

But all of the above reasons apply as much to France as they do to the UK. There must be more to it.

"It enables us to have yet another point of difference with the French," says Gray.

"Beef has long been symbolic of Englishness and therefore anything we can do or say to put British beef on a pedestal is usually done - ergo the thought that the French eat horse while we eat good beef becomes a chauvinistic way of asserting national identity," she says.

Horsemeat production levels in 2009

  • China - 168,000 tonnes
  • Mexico - 81,749 tonnes
  • Kazakhstan - 71,387 tonnes
  • Russia - 48,936 tonnes
  • Argentina - 37,712 tonnes
  • Mongolia - 35,582 tonnes

Source: United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation

Gray, who lived in France for three years, says for her, it is completely natural to eat horsemeat as it was sold at her local butcher.

"I am far more concerned with where the food is from. I would far rather eat ethically sourced, well-cared for horse, than battery chicken, for example," she says.

So are attitudes changing at all?

Peta says the thought of unexpectedly tucking into a horse burger has "rightly shocked the nation". But it says Britons who say "neigh" to horsemeat do so only because they find ponies "cute".

Who, what, why?

Question mark

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

"Why is one species cherished while another is spurned? If this story has shocked people, they should consider leaving all flesh off their plates and going vegan," it says.

Rather than seeing them as "cute", others may be more inclined to think of horses as majestic, or associate them with nobility.

The killing of horses for meat is still an emotive subject as many people see them as companion animals rather than a food source, according to the RSPCA.

But the proliferation of horsemeat jokes on Twitter suggests other people are seeing the lighter side of the story.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

Here is a selection of your comments:

The main reason for not eating horse-meat is the plentiful availability of other meats. If/when this is not the case then horse meat will/has been eaten. I enjoy horse meat when abroad and the fact that it is healthy is a bonus. Just heard that 10m burgers are to be destroyed. Ask those living from food-banks what they would prefer. Horse burgers or no burgers. I'll take as many as the supermarkets are prepared to let me have.

James Clark, Newcastle upon Tyne

Most brits aren't revolted by the idea of eating horse. Journalists say they are, but they're not. Give us more horse! And don't waste those burgers!

Michael Capay, Steeple Morden

Whilst I agree with most of this article, the parts about eating horse meat in France are much exaggerated. I live in France (near Rennes) and I have to say that I don't know anyone who eats horse meat. Most supermarkets don't stock it, so if for some reason you need it you have to go to the butcher. I suspect its something which is dying out. I'm forty and all my friends over here (who are french and of similar age) recoil when you talk about eating horse meat just as anyone might in England. And no member of my partner's family (who are also french) have ever offered me horse meat or any other part of its anatomy deemed edible. Nor have they shown ever shown any signs of eating it.

Simon, France

I think most are missing the point, it's not simply eating horse that's the issue here, it's the fact that it was labeled beef, hey I have a horse and choose not to eat it but you eat horse meat your choice.

Valerie Mcquillan, County Durham

Maybe they are aware of the often horrendous long journeys live horses make from Poland and Russia in order to supply the demand for fresh horse meat in particularly southern Europe. Horses should be transported these huge distances on the hook (in refrigerated lorries) and not on the hoof.

Tyldsley, Baarn Netherlands

The more serious issue is that of deception and quality control. What was being sold was not as described, so any guarantees of proper inspection and food safety were lost.

Mick Burmeister, Redditch

not so much why they don't - but why they shouldn't. Horses now have to have passports and one of the reasons for this requirement is to prevent horses from entering the human food chain "if they have been treated with medicines that must not be administered to food-producing animals" - yes horses are treated as pets but the point here is that many of them are given all sorts of doses and injections that farm animals generally wouldn't have. And some of these medicines would be harmful - directly or indirectly - to humans.

Lesley Lodge, Luton

Why does the BBC insist that British people are "revolted" by horse meat? I've seen no evidence of this. The BBC has just assumed that British people are revolted by it. A straw poll of people in my office revealed two who had eaten horse and everyone else (bar the vegetarians) willing to try it.

Steve Branley, UK

During WW2 when meat was stringently rationed we used to buy horsemeat for our dog. There was a butcher in our town who sold only horsemeat. It was readily available and not as dear as beef. One day my mother sent me to this butcher to get meat for the dog and I brought back what was good quality steak. When she opened the package she gasped and said, "That is too good for the dog, we are going to eat that". So she cooked it and it was great - may be not as tender as beef but still good and acceptable food for a home that was in the grip of rationing.

Alan Challoner, Anglessey

: I live in France at the moment & I love buying horse meat at my local market stall. Fo rme it tastes better than cattle steak. It is similar argument that Australians will not eat Kangaroo (I found when living in Australia the argument of national emblem & all that). If someone opened up a horse, kangaroo & cattle butchers, I am sure it would be successful with much trying to see what it tasted like & then attitudes would change

Geoff, Grigney, France

: Horses, cows, pigs, sheep; please do not refer to them as "food". They are no more "food" than you or I and they do not deserve to be bred in order that they end their miserable, short lives in the hell of a slaughterhouse. The human race is thoughtless and cruel. We must stop killing and eating our beautiful, sentient cousins who share this planet with us. They are innocent. We are guilty!

Naomi Elias, Seaford

The taboo on eating horseflesh goes back a very long way right to the very roots of being English. The horse was revered - look at the horses on Bronze & Iron Age coins and the hill figures cut out of chalk. Ipona was a horse-goddess and horse rearing was an important passtime and livelihood for celtic tribes. If the horse is the totem of your tribe - you are not permitted to eat it. This prohibition is in our genes we are, even now revolted by the thought of eating horse flesh.

Catherine Broadbent, Glossop

Absolutely revolting - not the horsemeat contamination but the double-standardness of "Sally Sensitive" carnivores. I've been breeding horses all my working life; beautiful creatures they are, but mouthwateringly delicious too. Just think we all need to 'get real' on this issue folks.

Stam Parkea, Harrogate

It's not the eating horsemeat that I have a problem with. It's the fact that it ended up in products specifically designated as beef burgers!

Glenn Reuben, Chelmsford

Surprised you didn't mention Italy. According to figures from the Globe & Mail in Canada, Italians consume 900g of horse meat per person per year. It's especially common in and around Verona.

Scott, Woking

As a horse owner and a horse riding instructor, horses are very close to my heart. However I was brought up on a farm where the cattle and sheep were sent to slaughter for meat. I have no problem with the eating of horse meat at all - as long as the horses are bread and kept for that purpose. I have been to horse sales where the 'meat men' are often bidding on old, damaged or flighty horses that no one else wants and this is where my problem lies. Once they have bought the animals they are no longer treated with any kind of respect they are bundled into a cattle wagon that is often overstocked, given little care. No water / food. They then spend anything from 24 to 48 hours travelling like that to another country to be slaughtered. By the time they get there they are dehydrated and terrified. We DO NOT treat cows, sheep or pigs like that! Why is it okay for horses and why would you want to eat something that has been so badly treated at the end of it's life?

Emma Meehan, Cleveland

All my horses (thoroughbreds) have it clearly stated 'Not for human consumption' so that veterinarians know this when treating the animal. Too many horses/ponies are given oral and vaccination treatments that are totally unsuitable for humans if the animal is then slaughtered without any knowledge of the withdrawal date of the medication.

Tullie, Duns

I would like to point out that Dr Roger Mugford is wrong about his non-commercial flock - they will not live forever.

Ben Barberton, Bristol

The horsemeat in this story is an irrelevant distraction. The really important fact is that Tesco and others have no idea what is going into their products. The lack of an audit trail shows that the public are at risk from meat unfit for human consumption, antibiotic residues, illegal growth promotors etc. This is what should be investigated.

Dr Tim Nuttall, University of Liverpool School of Veterinary Science

Horsemeat in the UK carries massive overtones of knackers' yards. On top of that, I understood as a child that French butchers selling horsemeat were required to exhibit a horse's head statue outside the shop so that customers would not be mistaken as to what they might buy. This implied that horsemeat was somehow inferior & nasty. Some horse heads can still be seen in northern French towns, but there are so few real butchers left that the matter is now pretty academic. Supermarkets separate 'viande chevaline' from other meat, but I've never seen a horse's head at any butchery counter.

Russ Lewis, Gex, France

I don't know what the fuss is about. I have a roasting joint of horse meat in my freezer. It is healthy to eat. There is a sentimentality regarding the eating of horse which make Brits the odd man out. If we love horses so much why do we make them break their necks in races? I started eating horse meat in France People will say ahh poor horses why eat them? Its all about image. If people didn't eat beef there would be no cows in fields because there is no profit in milk.

Mike Tittley, Carlisle

The horse is Britain's totemic animal. Think of chariot burials, Celtic coins, white horses carved on chalk hillsides.

Jane Tozer, Helston, Cornwall

I remember the horse butcher in Sheffield in the early 1950s. My aunt used to buy meat for her cats there, but I suppose people used to eat horse meat too in those days. I don't think it's to do with the animals being 'cute': here in Turkey there are stories about donkey meat in sausages, but people are just disgusted - they don't find donkeys cute. I think it's a matter of what you're brought up with - what you're used to.

Alec, Fethiye, Turkey

One possible reason which you haven't mentioned is the advent of Christianity in the British Isles and the campaign against pagan practices. Both the Celtic and Germanic tribes worshipped horses, and eating its meat was an integral part of Germanic religious rituals as the animal represented the war-god Odin. In 732 Pope Gregory III banned the consumption of horse meat in order to curtail such pagan practices.

Brendan Sweeney, Copenhagen

Isn't the problem that the food was mislabelled and our supermarkets terrible at ensuring traceability, rather than revulsion at eating horse meat? I am sure if the packs said 100% british horse burger, we would have no problem at all.

Kim Addison, London

I remember eating frikandels at school in Scotland at lunch. Exactly the same sausage type food that's very popular here in the Netherlands. Most of the Dutch manufacturers put horse meat in, which gives the frikandel a stronger taste. This article has me wondering whether all my fellow pupils and I were eating horse meat/or horse offal in the '80s.

Martin Craig, Assen, The Netherlands

What a silly article, it's got nothing to do with not wanting to eat horse meat; we were sold and thought we were purchasing cow meat, not horse. If we bought horse meat and it clearly said horse meat on the packet, and we didn't buy it, then this article would make sense. This article is purely to get page views.

Chris, London

I remember seeing a sign in a Belgian butcher's which was next door to a betting shop that said "Get your revenge here".

Sandy Macdonald, Poole

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.