If Princess Anne wanted to ignite a debate on the desirability of eating horsemeat, she has succeeded. It is a shame that the media discussion following her comments is largely based on unsubstantiated premises and not on fact.
Considering what is observed of the rearing and slaughter conditions for those animals (chickens, pigs, cattle) that produce most of the meat and animal products across the globe, owners will not take better care of their horses if they believe they could sell them for meat. In our modern industrial society, consigning animals to be eaten can pose a serious threat to their health and well-being.
The industrial slaughter of horses elsewhere in the world is beset with animal welfare problems, both in terms of the suffering endured during transport to slaughter as well as in the abattoir itself. With their sensitive nature and innate flight response, it is difficult to slaughter horses humanely.
The knowledge that horses could be sent to slaughter for human consumption when they have 'outlived their usefulness' does not lead to better treatment during their lives. It could equally be argued that such a situation could instead encourage neglect. For example, it is conceivable that owners may withhold essential veterinary medical treatment from their animals because the administration of various drugs, which are banned for use in food-producing animals, may exclude them from the food chain and thereby also from delivering a financial return.
More importantly, stimulating a market in horsemeat where one does not already exist could lead to greater overproduction of horses as owners try to make some money from their breeding operations. Such an attitude would not alleviate the horse welfare problems we already have - it would exacerbate the problem. Rather than talking about eating horses, perhaps the industry should focus on why people are continuing to breed thousands of horses each year that end up without homes or owners. Matching supply and demand is not easy but we should certainly attempt to do this to avoid thousands of horses being neglected and/or abandoned.
A lot of the media and public discussion seems to be based on the idea that horsemeat is being widely consumed in Europe. Because it is normal to eat horsemeat elsewhere in Europe, the argument appears to be that it should be normal to eat horsemeat in the UK too?
While it is true that the majority of meat from horses slaughtered in the UK ends up being exported to the European mainland, the fact is that Europe - or rather the European countries where horsemeat is traditionally eaten - has been losing its taste for the product for some time. The European horsemeat industry has been in steady decline since the 1960s as both culinary tastes and cultural attitudes towards eating horses have changed.
In France and Italy, the traditional heartlands of horse slaughter and consumption, the numbers of horses being killed have fallen dramatically during the past 50 years.
FAO statistics show that, in 1961, 333,000 and 283,000 horses were slaughtered in France and Italy respectively. In 2011, the numbers had dropped to 15,500 (95 percent reduction) and 62,237 (75 percent reduction).
The horsemeat production figures for Italy also include tens of thousands of horses that are forced to endure long-distance transport from elsewhere in the EU and beyond. The Italian Institute of Statistics recorded some 46,156 live equidae being imported to the country in 2011 (a 10.6 percent decrease in equine imports from the previous year).
Research also shows that, in the countries where horsemeat consumption could be viewed as traditional, the population is not exactly clamouring to eat the stuff.
In July 2012, an Ipsos MORI survey commissioned by Humane Society International on attitudes towards and the consumption of horsemeat in Belgium, France and Italy reported that only 50 percent of respondents in France, 51 percent in Belgium and 58 percent in Italy believed that it was acceptable to eat horses. Moreover, most of the poll respondents said that they never or only rarely eat horsemeat. Only a very small percentage of respondents said that they eat horsemeat frequently - 3 percent of Italians, 4 percent of French and 6 percent of Belgians.
Clearly the vast majority of people in the countries that have traditionally eaten horsemeat are not going out of their way to eat it. What one eats is heavily influenced by culture. Many years ago, in an influential paper touching on the status of animals in society, the renowned Cambridge anthropologist, Sir Edmund Leach, commented on food taboos and animals that may not be eaten. Eating animals that are too close to "self" (in the way we normally structure our world) causes great discomfort. Therefore, pets are not eaten and horses, who occupy a mixed category of companion and agricultural animals, are also dangerous to eat and are tabooed as food in most societies around the world.
While utility (as measured by the sum of benefits over harms) is a useful construct in our modern world, it is not the only value that governs our lives. Horses in the UK occupy a special place in British culture and are not viewed as food by the vast majority of the population. We should keep it that way!