Is the ‘horse meat’ question a moral one?

Horse in motion

There is an episode of The Simpsons where Fat Tony, the mafia boss, has been supplying the local school with milk that turns out to be from rats, not cows. Upon being discovered and seeing the outrage of Springfield, Fat Tony exclaims: “I don’t get it. Everyone loves rats, but they don’t want to drink the rats’ milk?”

People have strong view about what animal products they are happy and unhappy to consume. Yet, with the rise of extremely cheap, highly processed foods, we often abdicate responsibility for knowing whether the food we eat contains that which we have a preference to avoid.

When I was growing up in Australia ‘meat pies’ were very popular (they still are, I believe). These little pastries came in individual plastic wrapping, and were traditionally heated in the pie-warmers or microwaves of sports stadiums and school tuck shops until they, and a sizable area around them, would smell overwhelmingly of ‘cheap meaty-pastry of some sort’. You took one, smothered it in tomato sauce, and finish it off in a couple of bites, hoping that the brown gravy and meaty-chunks didn’t spill too far down your chin. It was a long-standing joke, everyone knew it, that these pies barely contained any meat, and what they did was probably from ‘unchoice’ cuts – offal, old meat, the meat of god knows what undesirable animals. And yet, despite the joking, no one really wanted to know, certainly not the seasoned pie-eaters.

So, if you have missed it, something similar was happening in Britain (and across Europe), which recently led to a massive scandal. Those 8 beef burgers for £1 at Tesco? Turns out they are 29% horse meat. (This is not to say that the other 71% is beef, but, obviously, what people are upset about is the horse bit.) In fact, it turns out it is common for cheap meat products sold in UK supermarkets to have horse meat added to them. Except, for those products for which ‘adding’ isn’t the right verb: those that turned out to contain only horse meat.

We know now, and there is no way of unknowing.

The horse meat scandal has been presented on the one hand as being deeply moral, and on the other as showing the irrationality of people who are happy to eat one animal, but baulk at the idea of eating another. I don’t think it is either.

1) Fraud. As Owen Patterson, the UK Environmental Secretary, put it, “This is an issue of fraud – this is a case of people being sold one thing and getting another”.

Fraud does seem morally wrong, especially if falsified labeling puts people’s health at risk. However, from what I understand, so far, no health risk has been demonstrated (fears over traces of a horse painkiller in the meat are overblown). Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent it was fraud. Like with meat pies, many people know that their budget beef burgers will not be 100% beef. For confirmation one need only look up the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) regulations. A standard beef burger must contain minimum 62% beef, while anything marketed as an ‘economy’ beef burger only needs 43% ‘meat’ to qualify. (For comparison – a meat pie in Australia requires at least 25% ‘meat’ content as a proportion of the whole pie’s weight).

So, at least for products that do not advertise themselves as containing 100% beef, the charge of fraud is complicated, and at least technically rebuttable. That said, just because you might think that your beef burger is likely made up of more than just cow, does not mean that you would have expected it to contain horse. And this is where the next potential moral dimension arises…

2) Is there something special about horses?

Well, in a way, yes. Horses are not as efficient as cows at converting their food into meat. This may be one reason why they are not eaten more widely. The ‘burger horses’ were not exactly farmed for their meat.

It was surprisingly difficult for me to find articles or reports that explained why horse meat was so much cheaper than beef. From what I understand (though I am happy to be corrected), there are countries in Europe where horses are bred for meat. In these countries horse meat is actually quite expensive and treated more as a delicacy. There are also horse abattoirs where horses that are too old to continue pulling carts, or were not successful as racing horses, are slaughtered. These are animals that would have existed, and would have been killed, whether or not they were eaten by people.

Now, if you just care about suffering, or animal suffering, it might be worth pointing out that suffering would probably be increased if these burgers were in fact 100% beef – because cows are bred specifically for food. Our eating cows directly contributes to their suffering in a way that it doesn’t contribute to the suffering of horses, at least in this case.

3) Does this mean that it is irrational to care more about horses than cows?

No. Wanting to avoid eating horses, but still wanting to eat cows can be an entirely rational position.

There are many reasons we chose to eat some things and not others, and most of them are not based on assessments of relative suffering. Most people in England are ok with the idea of eating cows, but for most, the idea of anyone eating horses, let alone them, is upsetting. Nothing inconsistent about that – you have a good reason for not eating horses (it makes you upset) that does not apply to cows.

Another non-moral reason to be upset about being tricked into eating something is out of concern for your own health. But in this case health interests do not apply. Eating horse meat is no less healthy than eating cow meat. Yes, the quality of the horse meat is not great, but were you expecting the quality of the meat to be good at such a price? Put in another way, would you be outraged if it turned out that the £1 burger you bought from Tesco ended up being made of the meat of old cows, rather than the meat of old horses?

4) What does this mean for morality?

We feel upset at the prospect that we have been unknowingly eating horses. There are many studies that show that the feeling of disgust, outrage, and upset due to a particular incident are part of what happens when we make moral decisions. However, these feelings alone do not constitute rational morality.

Mucus is disgusting, Elton John’s clothing is outrageous, and stubbing your toe can make you upset, but none of these emotions indicate the presence of a moral dimension to our thoughts.

When the health concerns, animal welfare concerns, and fraud concerns are all answered (to an extent) it seems that our individual and cultural affection for horses is driving our judgements, rather than any moral reasons. Note that I am not saying that we are being irrational by valuing the emotions generated by our affection for horses, but that this alone does not constitute a moral ground against eating them.

The same goes for animals or parts of animals that we feel individual or cultural disgust towards, such as cockroaches or brains. It is no more immoral to eat such things as it is to eat many of the animals and animal parts that we consider acceptable. But it is not irrational to avoid eating what disgusts you. There is nothing morally wrong with drinking rat’s milk. But the people of Springfield would still rather pay more for milk that doesn’t come from rats.

If it is just disgust that is holding you back, wouldn’t it be better, like in the case of the meat pies, if we just hadn’t been told in the first place?

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6 thoughts on “Is the ‘horse meat’ question a moral one?

  1. Well put… prejudice, perspective and preference often have no logical explanation. They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you and as long as it’s safe to eat maybe it should all be labelled “meat” and let people make choices based on price, convenience and taste rather than some emotive moral reasoning. If you decide to be a meat eater then you can’t afford to be too discriminating of the source perhaps

    1. I actually think the opposite. If you choose to be a meat eater then you have all the more reason to be very discriminating of the source. Choosing to buy meat products raised in sustainable and organic agriculture is of great importance when the market is flooded with factory farmed animal products.

      1. I’m not sure most meat eaters have a care or conscience about how their food lived and died though obviously some do.. Meat is meat and there’s no justification for eating it if you have a moral issue with the killing of animals. Once it’s on the plate you might as well consume it whatever it is and wherever it came from.. the damage is done at that point. I’m just saying that you have to imagine meat is NOT from an animal in order to totally enjoy it. If you have to eat meat to survive it’s a slightly different consideration

  2. No matter what it is you buy, you should know what it is you are buying. Especially if its something you are putting in to your body! I choose to eat beef, I would not choose to eat horse. To think you are choosing beef, and be tricked into getting horse (potentially a sick horse on anti biotics at that) is illegal and immoral and I hope justice is done for those involved.

  3. Great piece, Cressida. And Humean! There is a fun chapter on horsemeat in Marvin Harris’s good to eat. It’s the only meat that Christian’s officially banned. Harris related this to the inefficiency of raises horses for food (they require 33% more calories than cows or sheep), and their usefulness in transportation and war. The papal edict against horse consumption coincided with a Moslem invasions, which brought conquering Moslems on powerful horses (Arabians) through all of Spain and up the Loire Valley in France. Eating horses was like eating the only hope for military defense.

  4. Culture is a big factor too. As you say, in some countries, horse meat is a delicacy. Just as in some countries, cat is eaten. Other people will not eat hunted meat such as rabbit or deer because the animals are cute.
    I found an interesting article about horses and horse meat here:
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/food-trends/why-you-should-eat-horsemeat-its-delicious/article567009/?page=all
    I haven’t eaten it myself – have been a vegetarian since last summer….

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