By Kim O'Brien
Congress' recent recall on a ban to fund horse slaughterhouse inspections in the U.S. has enlivened both food connoisseurs and PETA members alike. And rightly so, as the new legislation repeals the 2007 ban on using federal funds for horse slaughterhouse inspections. This means that horse meat is now legal to market for human consumption, so long as it meets USDA Federal Meat Inspection Act standards (the same regulations that apply to cattle, sheep, swine, and goat meat).
Restaurant owners, will you be the first to serve horse? And diners, would you try it? Many Americans – and 84% of WEBStaurant Facebook poll participants – are squeamish on the topic.
America's "Sacred Cows"
While Western culture has no qualms about consuming beef, horses trot the line between livestock and pet. When we consume cow, we refer to it as beef. Chicken is poultry. Even eating Bambi sounds a little less crude when you label it as venison. But eating horse is, well, eating horse. As a recent Psychology Today article denotes, they fall "in between cows and cats."
Horses, the New York Times quips, are America's "sacred cows." Sacred they are not, however, in the rest of the world: throughout Asia, Europe, and our nearby neighbors Canada and Mexico. In fact, a recent Government Office of Accountability (GOA) study reports that the 2007 ban on horse abattoir inspections actually led to an increased number of horses being exported outside of U.S. borders for slaughter and consumption.
Consumption and Controversy
Equine meat is viewed as a traditional delicacy revered for its leanness, high iron content, and sweetness. While visiting Sicily, Italy, in 2007, I noticed that it was not all that uncommon to find kiosks selling panino con carne di cavallo(quite literally, sandwich with meat of the horse).
And yes, I tried it.
The sandwich's thinly sliced meat reminded me of lean beef, while its sweetness was reminiscent of venison. While I felt a twinge of guilt – I have read Black Beauty, after all – I was aware that horse meat just doesn't carry the taboo in Europe that it does in America.
That's not to say, however, that chefs cook this delicacy without controversy. Top Chef Canada drew ire after airing a May 2011 episode in which contestants prepared French cuisine featuring horse meat. And Toronto restaurant La Palette drew plenty of criticism this month when they debuted "Quack n' Track," a 4 oz. horse tenderloin and leg of duck confit dish.
As the implications of federally inspected abattoirs begin to unravel, restaurant owners will have to weigh public opinion against curious taste buds when it comes to putting horse meat on the menu. Like any forbidden food out there – from raw milk to shark fins – there could be a spike in consumption of this once-contraband dish. But it's doubtful that diners will embrace the trend. Americans just can't seem to adjust to the thought of consuming Boxer, Mr. Ed, and… Seabiscuit.