I’ll begin with some figures. Almost one billion people around the world eat horse meat. Commonly served in the likes of China, Russia, Mexico, Japan, Argentina, Holland, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, global consumption has risen by 27.6% since 1990. There are five horse abattoirs in Britain and last year over 8,000 horses were slaughtered and shipped on to other countries for consumption.
In a recent poll I discovered that around a quarter of UK respondents suggested that they would consider eating horse meat. Comparing this to our continental neigh-bours (sorry, couldn’t resist) we can clearly see the disparity between ourselves and French (35%) and German (50%) consumers – interestingly, in the US they are more likely to consider eating squirrel (18%) to horse (13%), but I digress...
So why don’t us Brits eat horse meat? It’s commonly theorised that the British perception of a horse is that it rivals the dog as man’s best friend – but how many of us can realistically relate to this? As a nation we’re far too sentimental and seemingly can’t help but anthropomorphise all creatures great and small (I bet you have no trouble identifying who/what Aleksandr Orlov is*). By and large the British people still stubbornly regard equine quadrupeds as domesticated animals, whereas the perception of a horse abroad is simply that of a cow with a long neck.
Looking at the historical evidence, it’s clear that our apparent revulsion (or certainly reluctance) to eat horse is a fairly modern-day phenomenon. The intervention of religion in the 8th Century went some way to prejudice the nation against the practice of doing so, although in post-war Britain – and especially Yorkshire – horse, under the guise of ‘cheval meat’, was fairly common due to the fact that food was scarce and horse meat wasn’t rationed. However, once our four-legged friends stopped being used for primarily industrial purposes and started to be used for leisure pursuits instead, the cultural perception changed and eating horse therefore quietly slipped from being unfashionable to being taboo.
Looking to the future, with the prevalence of volatile food prices and a rapidly growing population, it’s clear that food supplies need to be diversified and other sources of meat found in order to satisfy demand. Given the fact that horse is said to be very good meat – lean, high in protein, a little gamey in flavour and quite rich – and that the alternatives suggested by futurologists include insects, algae and lab-grown meat, I’m not sure that we can afford to turn our noses up for very much longer. I have personally eaten the likes of kangaroo, crocodile and bison in the past, and would certainly suggest that starting to farm these types of animals for human consumption would make good economic sense – although I concede that it would need to be backed up with one hell of a marketing campaign!
Adam Curtis is an Associate Director at MMR Research Worldwide.
*The Russian aristocratic talking meerkat.