Recently, the food company Nestle and grocery stores in the U.K. were forced to recall much of their meat and meat-containing meals. The reason? The meat was labeled "beef," but actually contained large percentages of horsemeat. Some as much as 100 percent. Sure, some people eat horsemeat on purpose, but other people are less enthused about the surprise in their mystery meat.
My first reaction was visceral - the poor horses! After all, I've ridden horses since I was eight; I tend to think of them as pets, even friends, but not food. But that doesn't change the fact that people around the world enjoy horsemeat, just as some cultures consider dog meat a part of their traditional cuisine. There's also the fact that the horse meat wasn't detected until Irish food safety authorities randomly tested a range of supermarket beef products and found pork and horse DNA present in most products. In other words, no one complained about funky-tasting meat, and so one must wonder if anyone would've figured it out otherwise. Which brings me to: is it really such a big deal?
Well, yes, of course it is. We all want to know that the ingredients listed in our food are the ingredients we're actually consuming. But I think that's what this scandal has brought to light: all too often we don't know what we're eating. In this day and age, so many of the ingredients listed on the side of the container range from indecipherable to meaningless… something we like to blissfully ignore until an incident like this makes us think a little too hard.
Because is it really that much more distasteful to eat a horse than, say, a cow? I would hazard to guess the answer is "no," if you take the time to think about it. But most of us - myself included - would rather continue eating in ignorance than delve into that can of worms.
The Chinese have a saying: "We eat everything that flies, except airplanes; we eat everything in the water, except boats; and, we eat everything that moves on the land, except cars." On my several trips to China, I've eaten sea slugs (think snot), duck tongues (quack, quack), and a whole, pickled quail (everything but the beak).
In Mexico, I've had bulls' cojones. I've tried tripe soup in a Polish restaurant in Trenton and snails in any number of French and Italian restaurants. Even these culinary adventures pale, however, compared to cutting edge gourmets who consume poisonous puffer fish and live octopi. Eating monkey brains is another exotic practice, though my limited research reveals that the eating of live-monkey brains is an urban legend.
Alligator, ostrich and kangaroo steaks are mundane by comparison. All are raised and eaten around the world. Likewise carp and eels.
At the end of the day, the Chinese aren't unique in their openness to unusual eats. The rub, as Claire rightly observes, is keeping the contents confidential. Almost as bad in my book is providing a chemistry set's inventory of chemicals on the back of the wrapper. How am I helped by being told the product I'm about to eat contains methylcyclopropene, aspartame, astaxanthin, benzoic acid, butylated hydroxyanisole, or canthaxathin? (You can look all these up at
At least - to the best of my knowledge - we don't eat one another. I recall a 1973 sci-fi film called "Soylent Green," in which Charlton Heston plays a cop in an overcrowded future world, who discovers that the latest high-protein bars on offer to the masses are recycled corpses.
Enter any American supermarket to see how far from that horror we are. Imagine how some Stone Age cannibal would react the cornucopia we take for granted. I can live with a little deception as a fair trade off.