A couple of weeks ago Britain woke up to the news that horse DNA had been found in what supposedly were beef burgers sold at several big-chain supermarkets across the country. Understandably people were upset that they had been sold something different to what they thought they were purchasing. What consumers were most angry about, however, was the fact that they had unknowingly been eating horse. Comments along the lines of “I’m glad I don’t shop at Tesco – don’t want horse in my beef!” or “One more reason to be a vegetarian” plagued social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as people discussed their disgust at having eaten perfectly healthy equid meat.
But… surely “if eating a horse is freaking you out, maybe you shouldn’t be eating pigs, cows or sheep either [?]” (Dr Matthew Pope, Palaeolithic archaeologist from UCL). Whichever way you look at it meat is meat, whether it comes from a horse, a sheep, a goat or a cobra. So why the fuss?
This fuss stems from one of Britain’s most important food taboos: do not, under any circumstance, eat horse. Period. Food taboos, a prohibition against eating certain foods, have been observed in most if not all human societies. They are many times thought to be associated with religion (e.g. pork and Islam/Judaism, beef and Hinduism), but they are also linked to other things/events such as stages in the human life cycle or special events (e.g. weddings, births).
Numerous studies have focused on trying to understand why humans have food taboos and it seems there are many reasons why we do: for example, resource protection, human food allergies/intolerances or as an expression of empathy. I recently came across an excellent open-access review by Meyer-Rochow on many of these reasons. One in particular caught my attention: ‘food taboos as a factor in group cohesion and group identity’. Could it be that the British do not eat horse meat because it aids in their identity as a group? It seems like it might. Let’s look at Meyer-Rochow’s description of this reason:
“(…) any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that group stand out amongst others, assists that group to maintain its identity and creates a feeling of belonging. Thus, food taboos can strengthen the confidence of a group by functioning as a demonstration of the uniqueness of the group in the face of others” (Meyer-Rochow 2009: 27).
Could this horse food taboo then be a manifestation of Brits’… Britishness? Horses are very much a part of British history and culture -also many great British battles have been won with the help of horses- and, as such, these animals in a way symbolise the country’s and its people’s national identity. Additionally, horses not only represent what Britishness is, but also, most importantly, what it’s not. The French, we are constantly told, like to eat horse and this is something that sets Britain and France apart. Thus finding traces of horse DNA in beef burgers for sale in the UK represents, in a way, the dissolution, the loss of British identity and this is something that most Brits are not willing to let go just yet. Especially not in the form of a Tesco Everyday Value Burger.
Meyer-Rochow, V. (2009). Food taboos: their origins and purposes Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1746-4269-5-18
I originally intended to write a post about prehistoric horse consumption in Britain and other strange eating habits of the past, but I ended up writing more of an anthropological piece. I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless! I will, however, be publishing an archaeology post on equid consumption during the Palaeolithic in the coming weeks – hope you like that too!