Back on the Burger-Wagon

CowHorseCow. Photo Credit: By InSapphoWeTrust I know, I know.  I said, ‘been there, done that’.  So, sorry to return to the issue, but I think there is another symbiologically relevant point to be brought forth from this continuing horsemeat malarky, which I didn’t really look at last time.  But hey (geddit?), I’ve had a week off and need something to get my teeth into.  Sorry, I’ll stop with the puns.

In my last post about horse-meat, I concentrated on the cultural relationship people have with horses in this country and considered why one would be disgusted at the idea of eating horse.  I also said this (so you don’t have to go back and read it again):

“As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.”

Last time, the labelling issue – whilst acknowledged – was an aside to a wider point about cultural taboos.  This time, I want to think about why it is such a problem that people may have been ‘misinformed’ into eating horse, especially as that has now become the crux of the issue.

I also want to acknowledge this article: Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault. which bravely and eloquently (if rather angrily) expresses a thought that presumably many of us have been thinking: that ultimately, you are responsible for what you consume.  I don’t mean this to be a personal attack on consumers, though; it’s a call to consider, from a less emotive position, how we’ve reached a point at which we are unable to identify the animal we are eating, let alone where it came from or how it lived.

Hunters, Herders & Hamburgers - Richard BullietRichard Bulliet, in his book Hunters, herders and hamburgers – a strangely appropriate title – coined the term ‘post-domestic society’ to refer to those communities that have become completely removed from the realities of animal slaughter.  To put this in perspective, the ‘hunters’ here are hunter-gatherer societies. Domestic societies  – the ‘herders’, i.e. pastoralist or agricultural cultures, are observed to become acclimatised to animal death because they live closely alongside the animals they raise, keep and consume and they witness – often from an early age – the process of animal death and preparation for consumption.

Bulliet noted that, Lebanon being a largely ‘domestic’ society, 90% of students at the American University of Beirut had witnessed animal slaughter compared with less than 20% at New York’s Columbia University.  I have never seen an animal slaughtered, though I am more familiar with the processing side, not least because I come from a town that has an old-school butcher’s shop where the carcasses are hung up in the windows.  It never really bothered me – perhaps because it’s always been there – and now I’m strangely proud of it, because I believe that if you are to eat animals, you should understand fully what that implies. Butcher's Shop Window. Photo Credit: Joadl

Back to the point, though; what kind of strange relationship is this that so many humans now have with domestic species, that we can go our whole lives eating meat without ever having to kill anything?  Well; we trade meat for money, something that I can be fairly confident in saying happens nowhere else in the natural world.  There are two things at play in the horsemeat scandal, I think.  Firstly, there is a post-domestic attitude that leads people not to disregard, necessarily, but to forget or simply not even consider the origin of their meat.  Post-domestic citizens are shielded from the realities of meat eating – the blood and guts, as it were, hardly come into play when burgers are chosen from supermarket freezers.  We are separated, too, from those interspecies interactions that are associated with the end result of consumption – the birth, the feeding, the herding, the death.  So there is no interaction at all and the animal – whatever it may be – is lost sight of. This is where factor two comes into play; money.

Meat packages in a supermarket. Photo: MattesIt is too easy to forget, with 99p McDonald’s meals, that ‘meat’, i.e. animals, are expensive to raise (and rightly so); they require a whole lifetime, however comparatively short, of feeding, sheltering and healthcare, especially (and crucially, for me) if that life is to be one worth living.  The pressure is on, though, to drive prices down, to be competitive.  In the end, is it really surprising that the bottom end of the price range becomes something that you may not consider appropriate meat?  Offal, or maybe horse?

What has this to do with symbiology?  Well, I’m really making a reverse point.  What’s gone on here is not an association between species, an interaction between organisms, but a great gaping hole where that interaction, for better or worse, once sat.  I’m not sure I would like to live in a domestic society because they are tough and gory, but that being said, living in a post-domestic society is a little like living in space.  Connections to reality – to the way the world is when there are no supermarkets and processing plants and cleverly-hidden slaughterhouses – are getting thinner and fainter.  Connections to other animals –  even if they ultimately end in death – are growing weaker.  I sometimes feel like we are drifting away from the rest of the world, even as we try to understand it better.

So, my attention was drawn to this article the other day, which describes the attempts of a primary school to educate children on the entire process of rearing meat; they are to raise pigs and then send them to the butcher (though I imagine they won’t see the actual slaughter – might be a bit much too soon).  I am not sure that I’m on board with teaching children how to advertise and sell meat, as that seems to hark back to the competitive pricing issue again and I’m not sure that’s what I’d focus on, but I can see the value in children being taught to understand exactly what their meat-eating involves.  It gives them the opportunity to be fully informed when they choose their future relationship with meat.  A good friend of mine became vegetarian after learning, as a child, what happened to the pigs she’d come to regard as friends.  Fair enough, and that might happen to some of these kids too. Sow with piglet. Photo Credit: Scott Bauer

Equally, the children might be unfazed and simply continue to eat pigs with aplomb (unless they’re Islamic or Jewish; either its not a very religiously diverse school or the teacher hasn’t thought this through). As far as I’m concerned, in essentials that’s OK too.  The key point is, they will understand the input and resources required to raise animals; the true cost of their consumption. They will (hopefully, and importantly for me) recognise the value of the life of their pigs, see that those lives means something, even if they are eaten at the end of it.  They will have an interaction and they will be symbiotes in the real world, even if only for a little while.  They may be the ones who end this fantasy of consequence-free consumption.

Jumping on the (horse-drawn) burger-wagon…

I am extremely inconsistent when it comes to my ethical principals.  I am also known for sitting on the fence.  Hal Herzog (a fellow anthrozoologist whose book explores this issue in its very first chapter) calls people like me “the troubled middle” and explains that we see the world in shades of grey (no, not 50 shades of grey… that’s a different kind of book).

So, I have watched from my fence with fascination and a little delight for the last couple of days as the ‘horse burger’ story has exploded around me; anthrozoology in the news!  What a treat!  For my friends outside the UK, who probably haven’t been subject to the bombardment of comments and puns (to which I am now adding, so my apologies), read the full story here.

Although everyone and their mother has felt the need to write a commentary on why the British public has issues with eating horse, I feel the need to stick my meandering oar in.

Suffice to say, this blog neither advocates nor contests the morality of eating horse, but just so I don’t get accused of too much fence-sitting – though putting myself at risk of losing friends – I’m going to start by climbing down from my fence, temporarily, and stating that my personal moral standpoint is, it’s OK to eat a (dead) horse if you choose to.  I can imagine that there would be circumstances in which I would eat horse, though no such circumstances have yet arisen.   Also, I have no qualms in admitting, I wouldn’t eat a horse that I had a personal or emotional attachment to, or even one that someone I knew had a personal or emotional attachment to.  Yep, inconsistent – I told you so – but I’m OK with it; I don’t consider inconsistency equivalent to immorality.  I will slink back to the cover of my shades of grey when it comes to the consideration of how horses are kept prior to slaughter and the methods by which they are killed.  I’m sure my mixed ethics will raise their conflicted head again at some point, but I don’t want to get into that any further right now.

In case you missed this in the news, slaughtering horses for meat does happen in the UK, even thought we don’t (knowingly!) eat them here.  The Metro did this pretty diagram to demonstrate how many slaughtered horses are exported to Europe where it is more culturally palatable and shows the numbers of horses consumed in other cultures. No one has denied that the ‘outcry’ at the discovery of horse-meat in beef burgers is primarily a cultural one.

It’s worth noting at this stage that many of the concerns raised about ‘horse burgers’ stem from the incorrect labelling of products: as someone wrote to the Guardian, supermarkets may have been better off just writing, ‘May Contain Horse’ on the label and letting consumers decide their own standpoint on the issue.  As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.  So, acknowledging the labelling problem, I am going to stick with thinking about the cultural taboo attached to eating horse in the UK.

To their credit, the majority of media reports I’ve read have made it clear that there is no health risk associated with eating horse meat per se and that it is not illegal to sell or eat horse meat in the UK or Ireland.  However, Tesco’s official statement said:

“The safety and quality of our food is of the highest importance to Tesco. We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell. The presence of illegal meat in our products is extremely serious.”

Firstly, this suggests that selling horse meat is illegal – whoops – and secondly, that the inclusion of horse meat compromises the quality and/or safety of their burgers.  Many reports (such as this one) call the burgers ‘contaminated’ which means ‘to make impure or pollute’, another refers to them as  ‘adulterated’, which means ‘to render something poorer in quality by adding another substance, typically an inferior one’.  Although it is true that horse is not generally consumed in the UK because it has, over the past hundred or so years, become culturally taboo, it is interesting that this meat is now apparently also considered unsavoury, unpalatable, or disgust-worthy (I wonder how the French feel about that condemnation?).

I’ve often referred in academic work about the influential work of Mary Douglas who, in the 1960s, wrote about the concept of food taboos in society.  Many – dare I say most – cultures have certain animals that are not to be eaten, or only to be eaten under strict conditions.  Douglas suggested that species that don’t fit neatly into our cultural classification systems are designated as ‘out of place’ and become pollutants, ‘unclean’ species – so, back to categorisation again.  A classic example is the pig in Judaism and Islam (also relevant to the recent news, as traces of pork were also found in beef products; this has been treated as rather a secondary story, however).  In theory, the horse would fit into this model because it has in recent years reached an odd position of no longer being a farm or working animal, but not quite being a ‘full’ companion animal.  This would render horses taboo, though not because they are unclean: rather, because they are too clean, too ‘noble’ and too closely linked to humans to be consumed in the same way as other domesticates.  Yet conversely, the media reporting all suggests that we are physically disgusted with the idea of eating horse, as we are disgusted by the thought of other contaminants in our food, such as salmonella.

Are we, though?  I haven’t actually seen one comments section (from the few I could manage to trawl through this evening) that wasn’t dominated by people simply making horse puns or other jokes about the situation.  Others, like me, simply weren’t surprised and assumed that most cheap meat had unidentifiable animal parts in it.  So I think there’s more to it than the fact that we see horses as ‘friends, not food’; after all, rabbits are both cuddled and consumed in this country without significant difficulty.

The conclusion I’ve drawn, whilst writing this, is: most people simply haven’t thought about it.  We’ve not had to think about it in a long time, perhaps our whole lives.  Most of us (myself included, despite my food-label-obsession) are so far removed from the sourcing and processing of our meat that, if we eat it, we barely relate it to the species from which it purportedly comes.  Although there is an element of cultural distaste for horse meat, here and now, I don’t think this is the ingrained part of our psychology the press would have us believe.  I sense that we normally feel we have a handle on things in this country, because we can choose outdoor bred pork and free range chicken.  We are confused though, by the shake-up of another ethical problem that we might not have known existed until now.

It could, then, be enlightening to see the fallout from this story, although it has happened before without any apparent repercussions. Could it be that eating horse becomes culturally acceptable once again?  Given the amount of racehorses slaughtered each year, would purposeful consumption of them be less wasteful than current processes?  Should we just stick with improving the farming systems we already struggle with before bringing in another one?  Will this lead more people to think about what is in their food and where it comes from – could vegetarianism increase?  Should we stop exporting horses to Europe for their consumption?   With all this now on the table, sometimes it’s just easier to make a pun.