Beyond the taboo: Is horse meat really that bad to eat?

England and Ireland have recently been rocked by a number of food scandals involving a very taboo and unappealing animal product – horse meat.

In January, 10 out of 27 burgers from retail outlets in Ireland tested positive for horse DNA when analyzed by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.  And now, a recent report from the British government found that eight horses killed in the England tested positive for bute, a common veterinary painkiller – and six of the carcasses may have entered the food chain in France.

As a result, the European Commission is amping up their DNA testing of meat products, to better determine what exactly is going into beef sold in the U.K.

As most in the Britain and the United States are staunchly opposed to the slaughter and consumption of horse meat, the recent controversy has many people concerned that burgers they’ve consumed may have been made with horse and not fully made with beef.

But why are so many opposed to eating horses? Is it really all that bad to eat?

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Ironically, nutrition experts say that despite the taboo surrounding eating horses, their meat can actually be a much healthier source of protein than more common forms of meat.

“It’s like a game kind of meat,” Martha McKittrick, a registered dietician in New York City and blogger at, told “Like buffalo meat, it tends to have more muscle, so it has less fat…It’s also pretty high in protein and high in iron.”

“That said, it’s very disturbing,” McKittrick added, who does not advocate eating horse meat.

“Professionally speaking, it’s a much better alternative than beef,” Esther Blum, a registered dietitian and holistic nutritionist in New York City, told  “Because with conventionally raised beef, the animals are fed soy, corn and grains, which makes them pro-inflammatory.  Whereas with horses, they are definitely a leaner meat and not exposed to hormones or antibiotics.”

Blum also noted that many pesticides that cows ingest contain obesogens, chemical compounds that disrupt the endocrine system and ultimately lead to obesity.  Pastured horses that graze on grass don’t ultimately consume the same obesogens.  However, Blum said horse meat quality often depends on how the horses are fed.

While it may seem strange to many Americans, horse meat is sold and consumed in many countries all over the world.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), China is one of the biggest consumers of horse meat, as inhabitants often dry it for sausages or serve it in dishes made with rice noodles. The FAO estimates that Kazakhstan is the second biggest horse meat consumer – as the horse is integral to the country’s diet.

Not only is eating horse meat a common practice in Asia and parts of Europe, some countries consider the meat product to be a delicacy, sold in the same vein of delicacy meats such as veal.  The meat tastes like a mixture of beef and venison and has a sweet flavor.

The taboo surrounding eating horse meat is mostly limited to the U.K. and the U.S.  In 2006, Congress effectively banned the slaughter of horses by eliminating the funding of horse meat inspectors.  Thus, horse slaughter plants were forced to close their doors.  Before the ban, eating horse meat was certainly frowned upon, but the meat product could sometimes be found in upscale restaurants.

In late 2011, lawmakers restored funding to horse meat inspectors.  The move was in response to a report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that the 2006 ban had caused prices for cheap live horse to drop considerably – leading to an increase in horse neglect, abuse and abandonment.

Currently, Oklahoma, California and Mississippi ban the sale of horse meat for human consumption, and Illinois prohibits the slaughter of horses for food.  Texas has had a law since 1949 banning the sale of horse meat for consumption; however, the state was once home to one of the last remaining horse slaughter houses – which finally closed in 2007.

One of the main reasons given for the opposition to eating horse meat is that the practice is “cruel and unnecessary.”  Many animal rights groups argue that horses transported for slaughter often travel in terrible conditions and are exposed to poor food, water and sleep.

But perhaps the ultimate explanation at the heart of people’s hostility towards horse meat consumption is that many regard the horse to be a higher caliber of animal than that of a cow, pig or chicken.

“It’s the perception of what the animal represents in a given culture,” Dr. Dale Archer, a board-certified psychiatrist and Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, told  “A dog is man’s best friend, and how can you eat man’s best friend?  No one thinks of a cow as a companion.”

“It’s not a logical response overall,” Archer added.  “No one’s thinking logically that it’s wrong; it’s an emotional reaction that occurs because of your perception of what a horse represents versus what a cow represents.”