03/07/2013 10:17 am ET Updated May 07, 2013

What's The Beef With Horse Meat?

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By Sari Kamin
HRN Staffer

So our friends over in Europe found out they've been eating their beef with a heavy dose of horse in it. "No thanks," we here in the U.S. think, scarfing down our burgers with a side of freedom fries. Most Americans couldn't fathom eating horse and pity our friends across the pond who - surprise! - have been feasting on potpies filled with a new kind of secret. The Brits are unhappy as we are to discover the mystery in their meat has finally been solved and his name is Seabiscuit.

Folks in Ireland and Britain are far more disturbed by the culinary taboo of eating horse than many of their neighbors (I'm looking at you, France!) who consume far more of those four-legged friends. Not to say that folks in France, Sweden, Poland and other affected countries aren't in a tizzy - they are, but not necessarily for the same reasons.

Taboos are a funny thing, and when it comes to breaking them, certainly not all food cultures are alike. In the United States we eat predominantly beef, chicken, and pork. In Muslim countries, pork is verboten. In Hindu cultures, beef is shunned. In parts of Asia, dog is consumed and thought to be good for strength and sexual vitality. In most Western nations, dogs are our best friends. So chew on this: While it may certainly be tempting to respond with shock and disgust when others eat foods we consider strange, it is important to remember that long-held cultural traditions are extremely significant in the way that individual nations think about food.

In the countries affected by the horse meat scandal, transparency is as much an issue as is taboo. In this instance, the old saying "you get what you pay for" is being violated.

Beef costs more than horse, so by using horse meat as a filler or even a complete replacement is saving meat companies a lot of money. We're being served up a mare in a bovine's clothing, allowing the beef companies to save a ton of cash and the cost of 100% beef products.

So, money is an issue. So are drugs. Horses are notoriously filled with steroids and other chemicals, especially those who had been used for racing before being shipped to the slaughterhouses. As my professor, the esteemed Dr. Marion Nestle said in class last week, "horses are so full of drugs, they're worse that that biking guy."

It's funny because it's true. The most auspicious of the drugs being used is phenylbutazone, banned for any human use in the U.S. and used routinely to treat horses for pain relief. Among a very a long list of human side effects are bone marrow suppression, internal bleeding, and liver toxicity. Kidney pie, anyone?

If you look at the American reaction to the horse meat outbreak, it becomes very clear that when we eat processed foods, we just can't quite know for sure what we're getting, but we should. Here in the United States, a country that recently saw California defeat the proposition to demand GMO labeling, we are aghast to see that Taco Bells in Britain have discovered horse meat in their Gordita Supremes®. That's a restaurant whose spokesperson was a Spanish-speaking Chihuahua for 16 years! Yo no quiero!

Ikea's across Europe have been retracting their balls ever since equine DNA was found in their beef. The furniture mega-chain has filed suit against their Swedish meat supplier who purchased the meat from two separate slaughterhouses in Poland. This just goes to show that the supply chain of processed meat is more complex than assembling one of Ikea's dressers!

McDonalds has been gloating over the fact that none of its beef has tested positive for horse, but this revelation comes only one year after Jamie Oliver exposed their fondness for a certain treated meat product known as "pink slime." Before we get all smug about our American beef, I suggest we all get off our high horses (pun intended) and recognize the fact that we don't know when we are eating GMO foods (unless it is organic) or meat or dairy that comes from cows treated with growth hormones.

So what is it about horsemeat that has Americans having such a cow? Well, I think it's a little bit of everything - the notion of eating such a beautiful animal that we consider domestic and friendly; the idea that we're being cheated by corporations; and also, when we get down to it, the fear. It makes us fear that it could happen to us.

What's even scarier is that it probably is happening in the U.S., and we just haven't tested for it yet here. I think and I hope that we will learn a lesson by this event, and that is to demand to know what is in our food. The FDA needs more stringent labeling regulations. Europe is much less forgiving when it comes to GMOs and it just doesn't make sense that we have no policy on this matter at all. (To learn more about GMO labeling in the United States, check out the interview on Heritage Radio Network that executive director Erin Fairbanks did with Jim Gerritsen, President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.)The other lesson is that if you eat processed foods there is a good chance you won't have access to all of the ingredients.

Here at Heritage Radio Network, we recommend eating as much home-cooked, organic, grass-fed, cage-free, local, and free-range food as possible. Of course it is not always realistic to maintain these standards, but if we do the best we can while demanding that the government give us the transparency we deserve, then we might not want to run to the border so much, because we'll be doing fine right where we are.

Find out how to eat real, unprocessed foods and much more at