Photograph by Bram Budel, Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

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A butcher in the Netherlands offers a variety of horse meat options.

Photograph by Bram Budel, Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Europe’s Horse Meat Scandal Casts Light on Food Taboo

Horse meat is taboo in some cultures, standard in others.

Everyone, it seems, is talking about horse meat.

A scandal has erupted in Europe because some products labeled as beef—including Burger King hamburgers and frozen lasagna—were recently found to contain various amounts of horse meat.

Some of what was sold as beef was entirely horse meat.

With everyone from vegetarians to die-hard carnivores, the subject hits a nerve. Burger King is reported to have dropped a supplier linked to the scandal, while the frozen food company Findus has pulled its lasagnas from supermarket shelves in France and England. Frozen shepherd's pie and moussaka have also been yanked.

Even if you routinely make pig, chicken, and cow a part of your diet, there's a feeling that there's just something wrong about eating horse.

But that may only be true in certain parts of the world, like the United States and the United Kingdom, where the reports of horse meat masquerading as beef first surfaced and where horses are widely viewed as gentle companions or noble competitors. Think of the Kentucky Derby, and the many movies and books dedicated to the equine kind. It's probably safe to say that most Americans are uncomfortable with the thought of sitting down to a plate of Black Beauty or Seabiscuit. (Room for wild horses shrinks in the American West, from National Geographic.)

In plenty of other places, though, horse is regularly consumed—without any stigma attached.

Horse Meat Consumers

On the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, for example, horse is a popular local ingredient, as is its relative, the donkey. (What's the secret to Sardinian longevity?)

Among Europeans, the Sardinians aren't alone in their taste for the animal. The meat is available at some butcher shops in the Netherlands. It's eaten in France, too. And though it may not be mainstream or headlining big-ticket dining establishments, there are websites like this one, where you can buy various cuts of chevaline for grilling, roasting, and braising.

The world's biggest consumer of horse meat is China, according to estimates made by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The Chinese dry it for sausages. The meat is especially popular in the southern region of Guangxi, where it's served as part of a dish made with rice noodles.

Number two, estimates the FAO, is Kazakhstan, where horse is an integral part of the diet and used to make various sausages and a type of dumpling called manti.

Russia, Mexico, Mongolia, Argentina, and Japan are also top consumers of horse meat.

The Meat or the Deceipt?

So what does it taste like? Food writer Waverley Root once described it as having a "lingering sweetness, which is not disagreeable but is disconcerting in meat."

The blog Eat Horse, dedicated to "promoting the human consumption of horse meat," touts the meat's healthy qualities: it's low fat, low cholesterol, and high in iron.

Los Angeles-born food historian Andrew F. Smith takes a nonjudgmental stance, perhaps surprising for an American.

"What's wrong with eating horse meat?" he asks, noting that the real problem in the European fallout is that customers were deceived.

As for whether or not horse should be consumed, he says, "We've decided certain animals are edible" and have "made certain definitions while other countries have not."

What's your definition of an edible animal? Do you think it's acceptable to eat horse? Does cultural background make a difference?