12/02/2013 12:13 GMT | Updated 14/04/2013 06:12 BST

Saying 'Neigh' to Meat Should Go Beyond Horses

Shock and outrage continue to grow, as every day seems to bring revelations of horsemeat being discovered in a new food product. And rightly so: Horses are smart, sensitive animals who deserve far better than to meet their end with a bolt gun - an often slow and agonising death caused by careless workers who fire poorly aimed bolt after bolt until the animal finally dies - before being bled out and skinned, often in full view of other terrified horses.

Yet the cows raised and killed for the advertised beef in Findus' lasagne and Tesco's spaghetti Bolognese are also smart and sensitive and deserving of far better than gross exploitation and a violent death. So why aren't we just as shocked and outraged to find their ground-up bodies in our food?

Like horses, cows are individuals with distinct personalities. Some are bold and adventurous; others are shy and timid. They're intelligent and curious animals who form social hierarchies and have best friends and cliques. These gentle giants mourn when a loved one dies or when they are separated from one another; there are countless reports of mother cows frantically calling and searching for their babies long after the calves have been taken away from them and shot or shipped to Europe to be killed and used for veal.

Cows have also been known to go to extraordinary lengths to escape from abattoirs. One cow at a US abattoir took a tremendous leap over a 5-foot gate and escaped into the woods to survive for several weeks in bitter winter weather. When she was eventually found, the public demanded that the abattoir hand over the cow - now named Emily - to a sanctuary so that she could live out her remaining days in peace.

Few animals raised for meat have such happy prospects as Emily. On today's factory farms, animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy windowless sheds, wire cages, farrowing crates and other confinement systems. Chickens are pumped full of drugs and forced to grow so fast that many are left crippled, and piglets have the tips of their teeth clipped and their tails cut off without any pain relief. These poor animals will never have the chance to raise their families, root in the soil, build nests or do anything that is natural and important to them. The first time that they are likely to breathe fresh air is when they are loaded onto lorries bound for slaughter.

At the abattoir, they are shot in the head with a captive-bolt gun, hung up by one leg and taken onto the killing floor where their throats are cut and they are skinned and gutted. Some cows remain still conscious throughout the gruesome process. If producers did to dogs and cats what they do to animals they're raising for food, they would be prosecuted and locked up.

All animals are made of flesh, blood and bone, so eating the flesh of a horse or a dog is no different than eating the flesh of a cow - or a pig, a chicken, a lamb or any other animal. Indeed, in other parts of the world, dogs and horses like those we cherish are regularly killed for food.

It is simply prejudice that allows us to make certain species part of our families while we treat others as no more worthy of our consideration than mere commodities. When it comes to suffering, there is no difference between a cow and a horse - or a dog or even a human. We all have the same capacity to feel fear and pain and share the same desire to live our natural lives free from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Of course people are outraged to discover that they might have been eating horses for years, and the concern for their suffering does us credit. So, no, it's not right to eat horses, but by that same measure, it's not right to eat any animal.

Happily, in our world of virtually unlimited choices, it's never been easier to leave animals off our plates. Vegan foods provide us with all the nutrients that we need, minus the saturated fat, cholesterol and contaminants that are found in meat, eggs and milk. Plant-based foods also help protect against many of our deadliest diseases and cause much less environmental damage. Best of all, they're delicious, exciting and varied. There are so many good reasons to abandon animal products from of our diets - and not a single decent reason not to.