Over the past several days, as news has begun to break over the horse meat "scandal" that's happening across Europe, American and European consumers alike have found themselves horrified. In case you missed it, horse DNA was found in "beef" products like lasagna and burgers across the U.K. The meat companies at fault service such huge food organizations as Burger King U.K., and the fast food giant has already faced tremendous backlash. Customers took to Facebook and Twitter to express their outrage and concern over the scandal and eventually forced Burger King to place advertisements in several prominent newspapers apologizing for the incident.
Why, I want to know, are consumers so horrified?
The Guardian interviewed patrons of a London restaurant about the horse meat scandal and discovered some interesting responses.
Kashyap Raja, 28, commented only that he wanted to know what he was eating. Another customer, Amit Bhadd, 30, a vegetarian, expressed the same type of concern but noted he'd "be worried if there were meat traces found in something that was supposed to be vegetarian."
There is an argument to be made that customers should be aware of exactly what is going in their products and maybe that's why they are angry. But, at least in America, we don't care when our packaged foods contain things like gelatin, which Google describes as "a translucent, colorless, brittle, flavorless solid substance, derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products." Various animal by-products -- sure sounds appetizing, doesn't it?
We don't care when there are ground up bugs in our food, either. The case can't be made that the deception in this case is any more egregious than any other, so why all the outrage?
If the consumer information argument is eliminated, then it seems people are generally upset to be eating horses. Horses, in most cultures, are treated almost as pets. We don't keep them in our houses and take them on family trips, but for those that do have companion horses, they certainly become like members of the family. Even if you can't call yourself a proud equine parent, when you see a horse, the instinctual reaction is usually to pet the animal or remark on its beauty, not to slaughter it.
Is it because there is something unique about horses? Are they smarter or more human-like or more special, somehow, than other animals we eat?
Maybe. But the fact is that pigs are considered even smarter than both horses and cows. So animal intelligence, like consumer information, can't be the metric for outrage either.
Interestingly, one of the consumers interviewed for The Guardian was French and commented that he wasn't upset about the horse meat. "I am French, we eat horse meat in France, so I don't really mind," he said.
Is it cultural? Maybe. In the U.K., they don't eat horses but they do eat fish. In India, they don't eat cows but they do eat lamb. In America, we don't eat dogs but we do eat chickens. Why?
Some cultures eat animals that other cultures would find offensive, but the unifying theme is that all are horrified to find out they are eating an animal they didn't sign up for. Which leads me back to the question of why. Why is it so different to find out you are eating one animal as opposed to any another?
Maybe the consumers that are so upset over the horse meat incident should ask themselves for the answer. Why is it acceptable to imagine that you are eating a cow -- a smart, loving, beautiful animal -- but once you find out it's a different smart, loving, beautiful animal, it's suddenly a problem? It can't be because of any inherent differences in the animal species, so what about it is so vile?
Here's the answer: nothing. Nothing about eating horses or dogs is any different than eating cows or chickens. Both are taking the life of an innocent animal and putting it on your plate. The difference is that we as a culture seem to have decided arbitrarily that we are comfortable making dogs and cats our pets and comfortable making pigs and fish our dinner.
The taking of the life of an animal for food should make us feel upset and outraged, no matter what. There actually is no good reason to distinguish between species, but we've somehow decided to do it anyway.
The next time you sit down to eat a meal of steak or chicken or fish, ask yourself how you might feel if you found out it was your family dog on the plate instead of the animal you thought. You'd be tremendously upset, wouldn't you?
So why aren't you upset about the life of the animal before you?