The reality TV show Top Chef Canada recently got into trouble for featuring horse meat in one of its challenges. Contestants were asked to put together a ten course French tasting menu, and cheval was one of those ten courses.
When I say that the show got into trouble, what I mean is that people started ‘boycott Top Chef’ Facebook groups. This is what passes for an uproar these days. Most of the people who joined the group probably never watched the show, and though I can’t find ratings figures, I’m prepared to bet that most of the people in the Facebook group who did watch the show just kept on watching the following week, because joining boycotts is easy but filling a slow hour on a Monday evening when all the good TV shows have stopped running is hard.
Still, the hubbub was enough to elicit a statement from Top Chef Canada, which their Foursquare mayor tweeted to their Formspring on Tumblr; “Food Network Canada aims to engage a wide audience, embracing different food cultures in our programming”. Clearly the makers recognise that people feel very strongly about this issue. People don’t think very strongly about it, but they feel with a profound intensity.
It is legal to slaughter horses for meat in Canada, and the province of Quebec is a major consumer and exporter. South of the border it’s another story. The horse meat industry is dead or dormant in the US, with the last slaughterhouse having closed its doors in 2007 following a legislative ban in the state of Illinois. The result was not that fewer horses died, but that horses had to be shipped overseas to be slaughtered, adding to the horses’ distress and robbing the US of its ability to guarantee the condition of the slaughterhouses. Illinois now has a glut of unwanted horses that it cannot afford to keep, which is why a bill to reopen the slaughterhouse was introduced in 2007 – not for domestic consumption, but because it makes more sense to ship meat overseas than to ship live horses. Animal rights protesters forced legislators to withdraw the bill.
This is crazy. These horses are never going to be sent upstate to live forever on a lovely farm with Stardazzle and Flower Bell. They are going to die, and they might as well be eaten. And honestly, they might as well be eaten in America.
Here’s the thing about horse meat; it’s higher in protein, higher in iron, and lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef. And it’s delicious – similar to venison, and a little sweeter than beef. I’ve eaten horse many times. I’ve cooked it a few times. I’ve even eaten it raw. I’ve eaten zebra, too. I would eat more horse if I could get it.
I realise this is a shocking for a lot of people, and when I ask people why they wouldn’t eat horse meat, the answers are usually the same; they like horses. They can’t think of them as meat. Even though we eat cute animals all the time – lamb is by definition a baby animal – horses are somehow different. That’s fine. I don’t mind that at all. I’m not telling anyone else what they should or should not eat, but I wish everyone else could extend me the same courtesy.
The same Top Chef Canada episode that featured horse meat also featured foie gras, which would normally be the go-to controversy, but horse meat is a bigger wedge issue, because people love horses more than ducks. The seal flipper in episode one also got some people riled up, but not as much as this, because people also love horses more than seals. The only meat that could cause greater controversy is dog. (Human meat would rank somewhere below all of those, just ahead of veal.)
Those lobbying against horse meat will say that there are animal welfare reasons to ban the consumption of horse meat. But the same animal welfare arguments can be applied to the treatment of any animal slaughtered for meat, and it’s important to be consistent. I agree that horses slaughtered for meat should be treated well, just as I think cows and pigs should be treated well. If that were what the activists were fighting for, I would be on their side, but what they’re actually arguing for is the case against all meat consumption, and they use the emotive issue of horse meat to bring people over to their side.
Credit where it’s due; on the issue of meat consumption, opponents are at least more consistent than meat eaters who overreact to horse meat. If you’re in favour of eating other kinds of meat, there is no sensible reason to oppose the consumption of horse meat. It doesn’t mean that you actually have to eat it. But you should really give it a try.