The mane course

The mane course

The news that horse meat has been found in beef burgers on sale in supermarkets in Britain and Ireland has had equine-lovers shouting themselves ‘horse’ (sorry) over the indignity of being served My Little Pony patties when what they craved was unadulterated Aberdeen Angus.

Fair enough. If you buy something labelled ‘beef burger’, that’s what you expect it to be – not mystery meat with traces of pig and a whack of horse-flesh chucked in for good measure. That’s why there are countless food safety laws and government departments, whose job it is to ensure that consumers get what we pay for when we do the weekly shop or have a meal out.

Personally, I’m surprised that more fuss has not been made of the fact that pig DNA has also found its way into the burgers in question, pork being unacceptable as food for millions of observant British and Irish Muslims and Jews. Nonetheless, it’s the spectre of horse-eating that has really got our goat.

One man’s meat…
That’s the thing with food taboos – many defy logic. For example, on a recent trip to Burma, my food-loving local guide told me that, during a visit to Cambodia, she’d been revolted by the wares of street-peddlers selling deep-fried spider snacks. Such creepy-crawlies, she assured me, are off the menu in Burma. A few minutes later, she was excited to find the tell-tale signs of bamboo grub-harvesting as we passed a beautiful stand of 20-foot bamboo. “Ooh, bamboo grubs. My dad loves bamboo grubs,” she enthused.

The ‘spiders, bad; grubs good’ dichotomy might seem pretty illogical – but is the national dislike for Shergar-burgers any less so? Unlike many of our mainland Europe neighbours, who happily tuck into a juicy cheval steak or tasty horse stew, most Brits say just say nay (or should that be ‘neigh’?) to eating horseflesh. But why? Horse meat is high in protein and iron, and is lower in fat than beef is. Like cows, horses are domesticated farm animals. So why are beef burgers okay but pony patties not okay?

The mystery of food taboos
Anthropologists have tried to make sense of food taboos for many decades, from Mary Douglas’ ground-breaking ‘Purity and Danger’ to the works of Sidney Mintz.

Food taboos, whether they’re religious or cultural, are deeply ingrained in every society and they have little to do with logic and a lot to do with conforming to social norms. When I told my family, over a meal of roast pork, that I’d eaten dog in Vietnam, my young nephews gave an accusing ‘how could you?’ look that I prefer not to be on the receiving end of again. (For the record, once was enough – and it tastes like roast lamb…). Horses, like dogs, are considered pets, and pets, in many societies – Britain included – are just not food.

When trust is the victim
In my book, provided the beast in question – be it horse, pig or spider – is not endangered and has not been cruelly treated, what an individual chooses to eat or avoid is a matter of personal preference. But in order to make the important decision about whether we choose to avoid or consume, we need to know the facts: what it contains, how it was grown, where it came from. We need to have trust in its provenance.

To me, trust seems to have been the biggest victim of horseburger-gate. Despite all those laws and regulations that are meant to ensure that a food label means what it says, it’s trust that’s fallen at the first hurdle. And that’s a thought that’s even less palatable than tucking into a horse-burger.

Want to know what’s in your burger? Mincing your own beef is a snap, and here’s our pick of top home-made burgers.

Which foods do you consider off-limits, and why? Post your comments below.

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