Sunday, 10 February 2013

Horse meat in British meat products

This is a scandal which has broken in the UK over the past 2-3 weeks. First burgers were found to be contaminated with traces of equine DNA then Findus lasagne was found to contain 100% horsemeat in some cases. A friend asked me what my feelings were about it given that I keep horses and have been involved with them all my life, so here are my thoughts.

If you are a meat-eater (which I am) then there can be no real difference between consuming horse meat and any other type of meat. My main concern is the welfare of the animals concerned rather than the moral rights and wrongs of eating horse. If, as is being suggested, the meat found it's way into our food chain via criminal activity, the horses concerned will very probably not have been looked after properly or treated humanely and that bothers me hugely. They may well also have been treated with drugs or chemicals which would ordinarily exclude them from human consumption. This, to my mind, is where our main concern should be focused, that and of course the right of consumers to know what it is they are purchasing and so make informed decisions about what they do and don't choose to eat. Also to buy food that is safe. I find it irritating that people fuss about eating horse but happily tuck into beef without asking the same questions.

Would I be happy to see horses raised solely for the purpose of the meat industry? The honest answer is no. But if a horse has to be humanely destroyed for health reasons, if it has been well cared-for, if abattoir procedure is properly followed (see this link Red Lion Abattoir Cheshire for a recent horrific case of procedures not being followed in the UK as relates to horses) and the meat it is free from toxic chemicals and the owner is happy for it to be used as food then I don't see why this should be any different from cattle, sheep or pigs. Would I eat my own horses? Absolutely not, but then neither would I eat my own chickens, unless I had bought them with the express intention of raising them for meat. Our girls are pets and were bought with that intention. We did have a discussion about it before getting them and made a very specific decision not to keep them as meat birds.

I've visited an abattoir before. I used to work with heavy horses and we had a shire foal who died, having been born with a condition that meant it couldn't suckle from it's mum. What I remember most about it was the smell: you could smell the place long before you got near it. Horses are very sensitive creatures - they would know exactly what was waiting for them just from the smell. It was a horrible experience and not one I wish to repeat. My wish for all animals who provide meat for people is that they be dispatched quickly and cleanly at home in their natural environment in peace and treated honourably.

What I get cross about is people who don't care about the lives or welfare of the animals they are eating, who support the meat industry but ask no questions of it. People who refuse to recognise that what is on their plate bears any connection at all to a living creature. I feel strongly that if you eat meat you should be prepared to butcher, gut, skin and prepare it yourself, which I why I asked M to show me how to gut and pluck a pheasant years ago and, although it isn't something I enjoy, I also know how to put a bird or rabbit out of it's misery quickly and cleanly and have done so when called upon, always with a prayer for the animal. 

We had a dinner party conversation about this very subject once. One of the guests stunned me by saying confidently: "I don't want to know where the meat on my plate has come from, I don't want to know how it was raised or butchered, whether it had a good life or was kept cruelly. I don't want to think of it as a once-living creature, I just want to imagine it coming wrapped in plastic on a shelf ready to cook, and enjoy eating it."
I found that attitude utterly repugnant and the lack of responsibility espoused very hard to stomach. If you eat meat you bare part of the responsibility for the animal's welfare surely? And that means checking the provenance and using purchase power to ensure good practice, whether it be battery chickens or free range pork. One good thing about this current scandal is that it might just make more people think about the animals that provide the meat they buy, rather than complacently refusing to make any connection with them at all.

For us personally, much of our meat is wild and local. We get pheasants from the local estate shoot, venison from the forest, trout from my father in law who is a fisherman, rabbits and pigeon from our neighbour when he's been out shooting. The animals have been killed cleanly and quickly in their own environment and they aren't stressed so there's less adrenaline in the meat which tastes better as a result. We bear a responsibility for the animals whose lives are lived in order to feed us. I hope more people will recognise that now. But more than anything I hope this stops more horses from being kept badly and treated cruelly.


  1. I remember vacationing in southern France a number of years ago, and being a bit appalled at the horsemeat openly for sale in the supermarkets. But there are several issues with the horsemeat in the British food supply - there's clearly a mislabeling issue, but there's a deeper issue of how we treat all animals that are used for food - in the US at least, industrial agriculture and the treatment of animals raised and eaten for food as part of the industrial system is pretty appalling. Horsemeat isn't eaten in the US, but the unwanted horses are trucked (in often appalling conditions) long distances to Canada or Mexico.

    But when you come down to it, cows, and pigs and chickens are sentient beings too - not just horses. When we do eat meat, which is rarely, I try to be sure it is sourced from people who treat their animals well and humanely slaughter them. Not ideal, but better than the head in the sand ignorance of industrial meat that is pretty common - yes, it tastes good, but it's important to know/realize what you're doing.

  2. Couldn't agree more Kate. I just hope what's happened here recently makes people stop and think.


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