A Meaty ‘Mare

JAMES MACNAMARA asks whether our anger should focus more on the practices of the meat industry in general than on Black Beauty.

food ethics France horses james macnamara meat tesco

The discovery of horse DNA in processed beef products has prompted an important debate: would you eat equine flesh? This question is the light-hearted focus of facebook statuses, twitter feeds, conversations in supermarket aisles. Consumer disgust has been inflamed by the fact that our meat has been tainted not just by something foreign, but something even worse: something French.

This reaction to the discovery makes clear how distanced we are from the reality of the meat industry. Spun as it is into an amusing faux-debate, it conveniently bypasses the questioning of other pathological processes that might be at work. The questions ‘why distrust horse meat, but be comfortable with eating cow?’ and ‘why don’t we know what’s in our food?’ are important, but they shouldn’t be the only questions that are being asked in the communication of these events.

A more important question is ‘what was the industry like before this injection of criminal activity?’. Jonathan Safran Foer puts it well: ‘more Blade Runner than Little House on the Prairie‘. His distinction reveals an important misconception as to farming practices and where our meat comes from. The majority of meat consumed in this country comes from factory farms, a way of intensively rearing animals that has developed only over the last seventy years. It involves gaining a maximum of consumable meat product with a minimum of cost. The trade-off is quality of life for the animals: the ability to exhibit natural behaviours being the most important thing sacrificed in the transaction.


There just isn’t enough space here to list the sufferings that result from these intensive farming practices. Or the environmental cost of farming on the scale we are currently achieving, or some of the normalised processes of adulteration being used to increase bulk and counter diseases spread by unnaturally dense livestock populations. But what must be pointed out is that these issues were already present before this scandal, and that, even though this story is stomach-churning, something positive might be gained here: a widespread re-examination of our relationship with flesh.

As it stands, the meat industry relies on us purchasing our daily BLT, eating lasagne at hall or barbecuing those cheap ‘basics’ chicken wings without thinking about how those animals might have lived, or how their flesh may have been adulterated before it reaches us. It relies on the near universal conflation of arguments advocating the consumption of meat – for example that it is natural and essential for nutrition – with the idea and practice of eating meat every day without questioning its providence. The disgust that so many seem to be feeling at the discovery of horse in their beef products, more of which seems to be discovered by the hour, might be a welcome catalyst towards changing how we feel about why and how we decide to be carnivores.

It might lead us backwards to questions that the media should have been asking before: ‘Is it reasonable for us to expect a constant supply of cheap meat with the population as it is?’ ‘How do we feel about the systematised suffering of animals that this expectation has resulted in?’ ‘How do we feel about the environmental cost of processing millions of tonnes of animal waste?’ ‘How do we feel about supporting an industry that involves these things?’

On the moral compass, animal suffering on an enormous scale comes before criminally added foreign bulking materials (I can’t help but think that, with recent figures suggesting we waste up to 50% of our food, perhaps using up unwanted horse can be seen as praiseworthy industry). The 29% horse meat hamburger is a deeply unpleasant result of the industry’s shortcuts, but it has become a comfortable distraction from the 71% of its ‘natural’ content that has, in all likelihood, been produced that are in many ways just as toxic and intolerable.

We should be eating less meat. For our health, for the environment, and for animal welfare. This scandal will help towards that aim. We should definitely boycott Tesco burgers and Findus lasagne. But not for the reasons this story has given us, not just because they might contain a flesh type preferred on the continent. There are bigger things at stake here, and this means that, whilst we’re at it, the Sainsbury’s chicken sandwiches, the Peking duck at the Chinese, the pork chops at hall and any meat we come across without a reliable guarantee of ethical quality should all go too.


Infortmation on factory farming can be found here: