Some who hear of the raging horsemeat scandal must wonder what the fuss is all about. A huge amount, apparently millions of tons, of horsemeat have been passed off as beef in processed food sold in supermarkets in Europe and probably every continent, with the possible exception of South America. It is apparently a way for organized crime groups in several European countries to pass off their horsemeat at a higher price than what it is worth on the open market. Eating the flesh of a dead horse could properly be described as icky. But horses are fundamentally not so different from beef cattle, so why do we really care which we are eating?
The answer, from a health perspective, has to do with drugs. We may complain about how heavily cattle are drugged, but there are limits because cattle are raised, after all, for the purpose of making food for humans. That is not ordinarily the case with horses. A horse, when it falls ill, may be drugged just as heavily as a similarly ill human might be, and with an equally wide range of prescription drugs. To eat these drugs in the form of meat, with no clue about what drug you are eating and in what concentration, is not anyone’s idea of prudent behavior. Depending on the drug and other circumstances, a serving of horsemeat might contain as much as one thousandth of a dose of a drug — and that’s a horse-sized dose. It could be enough to cause medically significant effects in humans. There are restrictions on horsemeat as food for humans precisely because such effects have been noted, or at least suspected, in the past, and that was when we were using a tiny fraction of the drugs we have today.
The headlines are in Europe, but I believe that is just because it is in Europe that the laboratory tests have been done. If you have ever eaten some very strange, coarse “beef” in processed food, there is a fair chance that it was not beef at all, but horse. If American beef were ever to be sincerely tested, I suspect we would find much worse problems than horsemeat. I am not saying no one should ever eat beef, but you are surely better off if you do not it in large quantities, and certainly, no one should imagine that it is a pure, healthy food.
The best thing about the horsemeat scandal is that the world is starting to pay attention to what happens to slaughtered horses. We are discovering a host of problems that we had mostly overlooked before.