Horses for Courses: Despite Europe’s Scandal, Horsemeat Is Often on World’s Menu

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A breeder presents his horse at Skaryszew horse fair, Feb. 18, 2013.

Though many ravenous Brits and Americans often insist “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” few of them would happily allow horsemeat to pass their lips. But as the horsemeat scandal continues to reign over the U.K. and part of Europe, it’s worth keeping in mind that not everyone is repulsed by the thought of eating a horse – and they needn’t even be that hungry.

For the record, the outrage over eating mislabeled food – whether a fact of accident or fraud – is definitely warranted. But it’s worth noting that this particular offending meat has upped the ick-factor for many Brits. If the contaminated beef contained, say, chicken product, it’s likely the scandal wouldn’t have reached the levels of alarm it has.

(MORE: After horsemeat scandal, a Mad Cow controversy.)

In Britain and Ireland, as in the United States, eating horse is largely regarded as a taboo. (Of course, neither of the three countries are against their horses being used for food altogether, as each country knowingly ships horses, either living or dead, to other countries for consumption.) The taboo isn’t without precedent. There was once a papal ban on eating horse, imposed in the eight century in what was thought to be an attempt to differentiate between Christians and pagans. It’s also restricted for Jews and Muslims, due to religious dietary customs. But, despite all that, Europeans “consume 80,000 metric tons of horse meat annually,” according to Businessweek, and they’re not alone. Horsemeat is comparatively cheaper and healthier than beef, so it’s hardly surprising that, for many cultures, horsemeat falls anywhere on the culinary spectrum between a viable option and a relished delicacy.

In France, which is also feeling the heat of the food packaging scandal, eating horsemeat has long been customary. Since 1866, when the French government legalized the eating of horsemeat because many could no longer afford pork or beef, specialty butcher shops have sold horse in Paris. Today, dishes made with horsemeat can be found in certain restaurants, often served raw, diced and seasoned as tartare or in sausages. In Italy, eating horse is especially popular and it’s added to everything from stews to sausages. It’s also eaten in Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

In Japan, horsemeat is called sakura, which means “cherry blossom,” because of its raw color. It can be eaten raw as sashimi and served with soy sauce. In Kazakhstan, horsemeat, horse fat and horse entrails are major ingredients in many national dishes.

Canadians are generally divided on eating horse; it’s more commonly consumed in Quebec, while much of the English-speaking parts of the country shy away from it. However, the meat can usually be found in trendy butcher shops in major cities across the country.

(MORE: When locavores are nationalists—pig-proud Hungary.)

And even squeamish Brits and Americans have been known to partake in horse. During World War II and in the years following, when beef was scarce, Americans would add horsemeat to their meals for extra protein. It wasn’t particularly loved – Republicans politicized the meals by blaming President Truman for the shortage of beef and dubbing him Horsemeat Harry – but it worked in a pinch. The practice was repeated occasionally throughout the 20th century when times were tough. And even for those who weren’t facing hard times: the Harvard Faculty Club famously had horse steak on the menu through the late ’70s.

So what changed? The shift can largely be boiled down to sentimentality: horses, like cats and dogs, are viewed as pets. Even the rise of experimental foodie culture and the periodic attempts by well-known chefs to push horsemeat onto people — as Gordon Ramsay notably attempted in 2007 — haven’t been enough to overcome the aversion. When you’re picturing Black Beauty or Seabiscuit on your plate, it seems your dinner isn’t as easy to stomach.