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Why are the British so fussy about horsemeat?

While the French huff, puff, point fingers at Romania and call for stricter controls on meat imports, there is one part of the horsemeat affair that has intrigued them even more than the scandal itself. Why are the British so revolted by eating horse flesh?


Like the Brits (and anyone, for that matter), the French expect to find beef in a beef lasagne. But unlike the Brits, the French are less bothered about exactly what kind of meat they recently discovered lurking between the layers of frozen pasta and béchamel sauce, and more about the fact that the ‘French beef’ they thought they were eating had not only made its way from Romania, but stopped off in Cyprus, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.


Much like the rest of continental Europe, the French are far less prudish towards hippophagy, or “the practice of feeding on horse flesh,” than their northerly neighbours.  Each year, some 30,000 tonnes of horsemeat are consumed in France.



Even in cosmopolitan Paris, horse flesh is readily available to buy on the high street. These specialist butchers might go unnoticed if not for the neighing golden horse above their shop-fronts that help hippophagous customers know they’ve come to the right place.


It’s not like you’ll find horsemeat in the frozen food section of your local supermarket however (not horsemeat that’s labelled as horsemeat anyway). It’s a meat that speaks of wartime and peasantry, and most of the young people I asked said they had only ever knowingly eaten it once or twice. But it is a healthy and affordable alternative to other meats, and according to most, tastes rather like a lean cut of beef. Which brings us back to the original question – why are the Brits quite so averse to eating it?


A number of French publications asked this same question after witnessing Britain’s horrified reaction to the horsemeat scandal. “Serving horsemeat to the English appears to be as inappropriate as serving beef to an Indian or pork to a Muslim or a Jew,” weekly Le Point observed.


A press review by free daily newspaper Metro surmised that Brits believe horsemeat is supplied only by ‘Romanian gangsters’ who deal in animal cruelty and toxic foodstuffs. But the article, entitled ‘Horse for dinner? Shock and confusion for the Brits,’ cites sensationalist tabloids The Sun and The Daily Mirror, so its findings are hardly surprising.


The authoritative national daily Le Monde, meanwhile, employed a medieval historian to explain “Why horsemeat is a taboo in Britain”. Said historian had various ideas, some dating back to the Middle Ages when Europe-conquering Christianity deemed hippophagy as plain wrong and then perfectly right, leaving the north of the continent thinking one thing and the south another. A love for horse-racing and hunting and an early end to horse labour helped to turn the beasts into a “noble creature; a friend of mankind” in Britain, he explained. 


But perhaps the real clincher in modern Britain’s total revulsion for horsemeat derives from a deeper-seated attitude; a societal dining pact that rules out eating frogs’ legs, chicken’s feet, snails, tripe, liver and steak tartare.


Britons (especially young ones) don’t like to eat meat that looks like part of an animal, which is why very few of them ever set foot in a butcher’s shop. They also don’t like to eat animals they consider their friends. Rabbits, frogs, horses – these are childhood acquaintances that would be terribly disappointed to find themselves in the cooking pot.


Unfortunately for this animal-loving nation, their squeamishness has only encouraged the production of unidentifiable meats. So far removed are processed microwave dinners from the reality of a living animal, it’s a wonder they involve any meat at all.


Perhaps we should boycott supermarkets and start shopping at the horse butcher’s. At least there, we know exactly what we’re getting.

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I have to weigh in on this. The British have always had a love affair with their horses. Much like some Parisians love their dogs. The French would certainly never eat a dog and the British don't want to eat their horses either. Here, in the United States, no one would think of eating a horse either although, it has been done. Horses are beautiful animals that should be free to roam the countryside. That is what is happening here in the western states. We don't want them on our dinner plates. :(


this is a good explanation
Many years ago I lived and worked in Holland for a couple of months and my girl-friend's father worked in the meat business - bringing home horse-steaks every night.I fried them and they tasted pretty good. I'm sure I've eaten horsemeat on occasions in France too-having spent about a year of my life there, holidaying and hitch-hiking etc. I think the recent problem is not just the eating of horsemeat but that it has been sold as beef, which it patently isn't, and the fact it could not be traced to a specific animal in a specific abattoir. For those of us who enjoy our meat..bon appetit!! (Good blog subject Sophie, keep it going, Alan)
Horses made the British Empire. They were what trucks, airplanes and tanks are today in an modern army. During the war against Napoleon, the French soldiers were often hungry and they killed and ate their horses. When the tried to retreat for example from Russia, they had hardly any horses left to transport wounded men, supplies, ammunition and cannons. The British on the other hand had forbidden the killing and eating of horses. The army which had better transport (more horses) did end up winning the war.
Well we should be able to have confidence in the food retailers BUT we cant! Yesterday the 16th I went into one of the very large French supermarkets that are also in Italy. Yes there they were Findus "Beef Burgers". Yes they were moved from French stores, but what then. They probably Galloped off to the nearest region where they are not currently under investigation, where they now Trot off the shelves. Remember Profit before Reputation, possibly Camel next!
I think the French are upset about the scandal, but for different reasons than the Brits, because processed, pre-packaged horsemeat lasagne undermines the notion that the food in France is meant to be grown, selected, prepared and enjoyed with great care, and great pleasure. See my thoughts on this at
The food chain is the chain of "what kills and eats what". The problem lies else where. It's being mentioned that Britons are startled, because horses have a personality; so does pigs, but do you have anything against eating a piece of bacon? A friend of my family once bought some pigs that he fed up for slaughtering through a years time, he was devastated upon slaughtering them and have never done so again. Pigs are even MORE intelligent than a horse - just look at the scientific research. In Denmark, religious authorities made it a religious thing not to eat horse meat, but nowadays, where most of us are not religious, 300 metric tonnes of horse meat is being eaten annually - we are 5.5 million people.
probably the English have been eating horsemeat for years.Only now their have been made aware what their have been eating.
There are a number of issues here, but every nationality has it's limits, from a UK perspective the French have a very much 'eat almost anything' approach (though even they would not eat, dog, cat, eagle, etc.), because they are closer to their pre-industrial agricultural history, A time when people ate what they could get, rather than what they wanted. For various reasons the UK along with the rest of Northern Europe is no longer tied to this and through the industrial revolution came to see horses as working animals and leisure companions. The second issue is that horsemeat is cheaper, and not regulated in the same way, with horse drugs, etc. often being incompatible with being part of the food chain. If we buy beef, we expect something that is what we are told. Ultimately though, fraud is fraud, and once again the EU was asleep when something important happened. If only they did their job properly then we might not be discussing this issue, or the collapse of Eurozone economies, for that matter!
We don't eat our pets.
I am British and have eaten horsemeat when in France. I would have no problem eating any animal that was to my taste. I would however like to be able to trust the people selling it to me.
I suppose each person might have their own reasons for not wanting to eat horseflesh but for me (and I am rather surprised that this wasn't mentioned by Sophie Pilgrim) is the fact that man can communicate with a horse in ways that are just not possible with other farm animals. Each horse has a character that can be easily discerned by a human who is close to it. That is the real reason for the British reluctance to eat horseflesh.
I think Brits are in the habit of being pretty closed minded about meat. On the whole British people think they should have meat with pretty much every meal, but are fairly restricted to a few meats like Beef; Chicken; Lamb etc. The problem is meat is very expensive, but instead of reducing the amount of meat we eat, we just buy lower quality meat and/or meat from animals treated unethically. It's not so much a fear of meat that reminds people of animals, more a sense of a right or necessity to eat meat, that means people buy cheap Tesco burgers. People are also largely uneducated about food in the UK, but there is a growing number of educated young people who really care about food, which is why British restaurants are now holding their own amongst others throughout the world, and now better than most restaurants in France :-o !!
"It’s a meat that speaks of wartime and peasantry," maybe in france mais pas dans l'angleterre.We didnt sugger from the last german european tour so we didnt have to\get used to it. As half french / english I have eaten it, I dont mind but I do object to being told I am buying cow and get horse. Its a bit ike buying a renault and being told its a Dacia!
The Dutch in WW2 during the winter of 1944-45 ate every cat and dog that had survived that far. Hunger can alter your reluctance to consume our furry friends.
Many Brits use their local butcher. Many Brits eat rabbit. As for liver, it is a real favourite served with bacon and a good dollop of 'mash'. Granted, not many resort to eating frogs thighs, foie gras or snails but then, in my opinion, nor would most reasonable folk of any nationality.
So why dont the French eat dogs or cats or possibly the mother-in-law. All are edible. Horses are very sociable animals and are definitely not suitable to be transported the way cattle are. They do work for us, for both pleasure and hard graft which is more than can be said for most animals. Personally I have never been let down by a horse but I have lost count the number of times people let you down.
It might be to ask why meat suppliers and farmers in France recieve billions in CAP subsidies still need to import cheap meat from eastern Europe and sell it on.
If horsemeat and beef are at end of the day MEAT, why not start serving Dogs and Cats and Pigeons !! People do get "used to" very soon.. only connoisseur will be the ones complaining.. By the way, I am a vegeterian and for me the cow and the horse (and the dogs.. the cats ) belong to the farm.. not cooking pots
It's not that we're revolted by horsemeat (mostly) - it's the fraud that has happened and not being able to rely on the food chain to actually contain what it is supposed to contain.
Part of the explanation here doesn't hold up to the slightest investigation: the British eat roast chicken, turkey and various other birds, deep fried chicken wings and legs, and roast leg of lamb all of which look like what they are. Further, I'm not sure if the comparison with Jews and their dietary laws is correct. I know several Jews and their only objection to pork or lobster is the dietary law, not that they object to actually eating pork or lobster. There is no squeamishness in their avoidance. This may not be true for all Jews or Muslims; and I don't know if it is true for Hindus.
I agree that nowadays many people are so oversensitive that they don't want to think of animals at all when eating meat!
I can tell you why Americans detest the thought of horse meat. It goes way back to the pioneer days. Back then to eat ones horse was considered a desperate measure. The horse was your companion on the lone desert, often separating you from life or death. To be without a horse meant you were going to die. Also majestic herds of wild mustangs roaming free had a romantic connotation. It seems each country has their idiosyncrasies about what to eat or not. Thumbs up to France for an outstanding military victory in Mali.
just read the tana"kh, pentateuch, the third book of moses. there you'll find some of the reasons why horsemeat for some is inacceptable. besides, some people point out that horses are killed very cruelly. this is why (apart from some of the mentioned reasons in the article) at least some people are understandably against horsemeat.
perhaps, Ms Pilgrim, you are not familiar with some of Britain's traditional dishes? Haggis uses the lights, livers, hearts, and other bits of sheep, cooked in the sheep's stomach; Faggots, and the similar Savoury Ducks, are made from the equivalent parts of a pig, cooked in caul; Tripe, with a clove-studded onion, wrapped around a (cleaned) cow's foot (a "cowheel") is cooked in milk until tender; Chitterlings are pretty much the same as the Girondin Tricandilles; until the disease scrapie became endemic, following the Thatcher govt's relaxation of abattoir hygiene rules, Sheep's brains poached and spread on toast was a popular dish in the north of England; Brawn is very like jambon persillée, but made exclusively from flesh removed from a pig's head; lamb tongue and calf's tongue are both popular sandwich fillings; Black Pudding is pig's blood, oats, and spices - known in Lancashire as Bury Pudding, and very like boudin noir; and there is no more English dish than Steak and Kidney pie - when I cooked it for a group of my neighbours in the Minervois they found the idea distasteful, but every one of them had second (often third) helpings; and there are many more British and Irish dishes (including imports - a friend cooked a wonderful Mauritian dish of spiced fried chicken guts, and most UK Chinese restaurants serve chicken feet); I enjoy your blogs, regards Kev