Horsemeat has been put in the spotlight due to the discovery of horse DNA in frozen burgers sold as beef in Tesco, Lidl, Iceland and Aldi. Although widely eaten in Europe, horsemeat has long tipped the controversy scales in the UK, but is our beef with eating equines ultimately hurting our horses?
Free range, sustainable and healthy: these are the words we all most want to hear when sourcing food for our tables, but when it comes to the meat we eat, not all animals are equal.
Horses are having a complicated time of it in the UK. Farm work has largely been overshadowed by modern machinery, there are only a select number of elite horses fit for the racecourse and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more expensive pet. Because of their depleting uses, equine numbers are steadily dropping. In fact, so low are the numbers of some native breeds, they are worrying the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The Cleveland Bay, Eriskay, Suffolk and Hackney horse and pony are all on their critical watch list (fewer than 300), with more breeds still on their endangered, vulnerable and at risk lists. Claire Barber at RBST, explained the problems the charity is facing in trying to conserve our native breeds:
"People are not buying horses because they're too expensive to keep and breed, and without a productive purpose, they continue to lose market value".
Although the RBST are doing stellar conservation work, they are all too aware that economic realities can't be ignored. Hill farmers are making as little as £5 for a Welsh Mountain Pony (a native breed on RBST's vulnerable list) and it would be unethical to promote breeding when they have so little economic value. So, what exactly can be done?
I spoke to Ruth, a smallholder in Cumbria, who is passionate about feral breeds staying on the fell, but understands the financial difficulties faced by farmers:
"The only way to keep them is to eat them. They would have greater financial value if horses were used for meat, and if they had a value, they would be bred and cared for".
Ruth believes that the conservation of rare breeds is being held back by our conservative eating habits and perception prejudice. She has dreams of starting her own horsemeat charcuterie business, so she can help preserve our native breeds and personally ensure a high standard of welfare.
Although horsemeat is not illegal in the UK (although it's certainly illegal not to label it as such), there is currently no legislation for codes of welfare for horses, other than as companion animals. There is the added complication that horses are flight animals, prone to stress, so they would require careful handling and specialist abattoirs, but this issue would cease to be a complication if horsemeat became standard in the British diet, as it already is in some parts of Europe and Asia.
New EU regulations to protect animals at the time of killing came into force on 1 January this year, which has overhauled welfare mandates in slaughterhouses. The new regulations impose a stricter duty of care and specify that "a person who is responsible for an animal must ensure the animal's needs are met", which includes "the ability to behave normally" and "to be kept with other animals or alone according to the needs and requirements of that species". If the special requirements of equines at slaughter are already safeguarded under The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2013 (WATOK), these arguments for not eating horsemeat become moot and the creation of licensed equine abattoirs seems the logical next step. But whether the public are ready to embrace this new red meat in their diet is another matter.
Horsemeat naysayer, Marcus Wareing, publicly damned the eating of horses as "absolutely unthinkable" after Gordon Ramsay promoted it on the F Word in 2007, stating "I would never eat horse and I certainly wouldn't serve it in my restaurants". Wareing's argument that "it's not part of our food culture" may be true currently, but horsemeat has certainly played its part in British food history. In fact, the Brits were regularly eating horse as recently as the 1930s. Ramsay's attempts may have fallen flat (PETA protested by dumping a tonne of horse manure on the doorstep of his restaurant at Claridges), but six years on, is it finally time put our sentimentality out to pasture?
The argument for horses having a special status as companion animals is certainly an emotive one. Who doesn't fondly remember Saturday afternoons watching Black Beauty on the telly? But it's a cop out to compare horsemeat to stir-frying your pet dog or cat. Labradors and Tabbies aren't in danger of extinction. There's no denying that equines are beautiful and majestic beasts, but this ingrained taboo is ultimately short-sighted.
When I discovered that UK based exotic meat suppliers, Kezie, recently started stocking horsemeat "from producers who reach [their] high welfare standards", I was champing at the bit to try horsemeat for myself. I spoke to managing director, Walter Murray, about the public reaction to their controversial stock and, aside from an angry letter from a young teenage girl with a pet pony, the reaction has been largely positive. I ordered a variety of cuts for a "Horses Four Courses" supper for six to find out if horsemeat is tasty enough to get off our moral high horse for.
We started with horseradish-spiked horsemeat Scotch quails eggs, which were excellent and much less gamey than I had imagined. These were followed by a deliciously tender horse tartare, which left the table silent in gratitude. Next we tucked into a hearty and succulent one pot warmer of horse braised in red wine before finally carving a horse rump roast, which was the only dud note of the evening. Roast horse excluded (it was as tough as an old riding boot), horsemeat is moist and moreish, with a similar character to beef, only slightly sweeter and with an extra subtle gaminess. Because the meat is so lean, you need to treat it more like venison than beef. Rare or slow cooked seems to be the way to go to prevent it drying out, but with a little care and attention, horsemeat can certainly rival other traditional red meats.
Packed with protein, rich in iron and Omega 3 and with half the fat of beef, horsemeat is delicious, nutritious and inexpensive. I'm certainly game for going back for more. If eating well and cheaply can go even a little way in helping to protect our native breeds from extinction, the ethical debate looks set to swing in horsemeat's favour.
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