Slaughtering horses gets people riled up, as evidenced by the reactions to Congress’ decision to lift the horse slaughter ban in the U.S. While some think it’s inhumane, others—including PETA, surprisingly—think it’s actually better that lame or sick horses be slaughtered in the U.S. (since the alternative is often abandonment or shipping to Mexico or Canada for slaughter, neither of which is an improvement). And many think that while we’re at it, we may as well be economical and process the meat for consumption, too. But even if domestic horse slaughter is humane, eating horse meat isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Why don’t I think so? Mainly, because I’ve eaten it. My experiments with horse meat weren’t at the whim of culinary curiosity, so much as the fact that it’s a pretty common foodstuff in Iceland, where I spent a couple of months teaching for a summer. Horse meat was in everything: Even the “beef,” we were informed by the cafeteria workers, was infused with some horse filler. And in a country where fresh vegetables are scarce and, at the time, all food was basically priced out of my student-teacher budget, I was hard-pressed to avoid the meat entirely. And it wasn’t fun.
Now, I’m not bothered so much by the fact that I ate horse: I eat chicken, beef, pork and eggs, all of which require killing animals. So while certainly, some of the American students and teachers on my trip were freaked out to be served a plateful of ground horse meat, to me, it wasn’t much different ethically than eating any other omnivorous meal. It’s just that Americans anthropomorphize them more readily than their other farm-bred animal friends.
But that’s just ethical. Part of the gross-out factor with eating “weird” meats like horse is that we’re just not used to what the animals would taste or look like on a plate instead of as pets. Horse meat, it turns out, looks a lot like any other kind of red meat. (As for the taste, since you’re probably curious: It tastes kind of like… bad beef. But then, the student cafeteria that was serving it to nearly 100 people may not have done it quite the justice that, say, a gourmet Japanese restaurant might.) But nutritionally, it’s not the same at all. And my stomach knew it. Myself and my fellow dorm-mates had aching stomachs and such bad gas that we openly discussed techniques for relieving the pains. (Picture a room full of girls squatting and squeezing their stomachs in an attempt, essentially, to fart. That’s why I won’t be rushing to the stores looking for horse meat anytime soon.)
But the nutrition facts, at first glance, look surprisingly good: 100 grams (or 3.5 ounces) of raw horse meat contains 172 calories, 9.8 grams of fat, zero carbohydrates, and just over 20 grams of protein. It’s extremely lean, which should make it a favorite for high-protein dieters. And according to research from the Korean Nutrition Society, it is a good option for people who want animal protein without large amounts of animal fat—they determined that the proteins in horse meat were beneficial for human health, and the meat is indeed lower in fat than beef or pork.
But they were analyzing meat that was expressly raised to be eaten (with a “fattening period” of 12 months); not meat from wild horses or horses that were raised to race and work. Common sense should tell you: If a horse needs to be slaughtered because it’s sick or injured, then the meat isn’t necessarily in prime health, either. And if they’ve been slaughtered just to be put out of their misery, they’re not necessarily even safe to eat. (Although that’s not to say that all factory-farmed meat is, either.)
The risk for bacteria or meat that’s been raised on sub-optimal feed is bound to be higher in horse meat that wasn’t actually raised to be eaten. And basic rules of food safety would indicate that by and large, if you start to see horse meat at your local grocery store, you’re not likely eating an animal that was once roaming free, and only recently slaughtered to be put out of its misery. If it’s healthy to eat, then it was probably farmed, so even if it’s lower in fat or higher in protein, it’s not necessarily more humane than any other kind of meat.
Photo: Tuesday’s Horse