Europe's horsemeat scandal is the product of our quest to source cheap red meat for the working man. It casts light on the often shadowy equine trade across Europe and how horses have become victims of changing times and the economic crisis.
"Our system is the worst of all, because it brings us to this - instead of the public sale of healthy horses, under supervised control and by registered butchers, we have the furtive sale of 'suspect flesh' in attics, in cellars, by the firstcomer, by smugglers, by prostitutes, by disreputable men with no profession." -- Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1856.
Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was the director of the Paris Natural History Museum and a member of the Société Protectrice des Animaux of France. He was one of a group of learned, mid-nineteenth-century gentlemen who proposed that France become an openly horse-eating nation for the first time since Pope Gregory III's ban on the pagan practice of hippophagy in 732 AD. The proposal was rational: as a result of the industrial revolution, there were vast numbers of working horses that required humane disposal, and vast numbers of urban laborers who could not afford red meat. Highly regulated bouchers chevalines, or "horse butchers" were the obvious solution: At the end of their labors horses would be rested, fed well and then killed, their healthy, iron-rich meat being sold to the public.
Could Saint-Hilaire have imagined that 157 years later, following the legalization of the sale of horse flesh in every European nation, and the introduction of reams of animal welfare legislation and bureaucracy, the Continent would be sideswiped by a new horsemeat scandal involving fraud on a massive scale, potentially unsafe meat and the abuse of the equines themselves?
Hominids hunted and ate the ancestors of the modern horse over 500,000 years ago, but it all got a lot more complicated 495,000 years later when the first Bronze-Age Kazakh threw a leg over the back of a wild horse. Equines span bureaucratic and cultural categories, being both livestock, working animal and pet. This leads to knotty problems in a modern, industrialized food chain.
The 2013 scandal that began as "Burger Gate" in Ireland has expanded to encompass an estimated 13 countries and 28 firms. Horse has been unwittingly served up as lasagna, bolognese sauce and even as "fresh beef" by school canteens, pub chains, prisons, hospitals and unsuspecting parents. Some speculate that the fraud may have been underway for years. The price of beef has nearly doubled in the last six years, while the price of horses have gone into freefall thanks to the recession. The consumption of horse in 2013 is as logical as Saint-Hilaire's proposal. It's just not legal -- at least not if it isn't labeled as horsemeat.
How did this happen? Burger Gate is the result of years of bureaucratic bungling, austerity cutbacks and their unintended yet inevitable consequences. Few horses are openly raised for meat -- the dinner plate comes as a second and often unexpected vocation after a life of sport or work. This means horsecare is not subject to the same strict regulations and documentation as cattle husbandry: Any movement of cows between farms must be documented, but not so with horses. The result is loopholes galore, ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous traders.