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The History of Horse Meat

Author Jerry Hopkins, writing in Strange Foods: Bush Meat, Bats and Butterflies–An Epicurean Adventure Around the World, says prehistoric humans hunted and ate horses. He believes the ancients may have raised horses for eating before they got the notion to ride them.

Research by England’s University of Exeter, reported in the journal Science in early 2009, credits the Botai culture of Kazakhstan as the first to domesticate horses some 5,500 years ago. Exeter’s team of international researchers says the Botai had a fully pastoral economy based upon the horse. The animals were used as beasts of burden–both for hauling and riding, for meat, and for milk. Having domesticated the equine, Botai tribesmen enjoyed advantages in transportation, warfare, farming, and communications.

From that point forward, the horse became a vital cog in the world economy. They were tools of work, commerce, industry, and war. If they didn’t succumb to the rigors of daily life–both humane and inhumane, work-related injuries, or battle, they were sold for salvage. The money an owner got in return went to pay for a younger, stronger horse to take its place (similar to trading in one automobile toward the purchase of another). Once sold, horses, mules, and ponies went to an easier job they were still suited for, to the rendering plant, to the butcher. They were re-purposed as leather, as horse hair in furniture, as glue, gelatin, and cosmetics, as dog food, and for human consumption.

Soldiers and civilians the world over ate horse meat as a matter of survival during WWI and WWII. In pre-war Europe, it was peasant food; food for the masses. Amid WWII government price controls and rationing, horse meat appeared in American butcher shops from California to New Jersey. It sold for roughly half the price of beef. Post-Depression American consumers preferred beef, but the troops’ need for protein was paramount. Horse meat provided a superior protein source that tasted better than Spam.

Millions in Europe and Japan were facing starvation following surrender. For that reason, in 1945, Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT), urged fellow lawmakers to increase the amount of horse meat included in foreign food relief. Noting it was high in protein and “highly palatable,” sending horse meat abroad meant more beef was available for Americans
 [Hurt 2008, 141].

Today, horse meat remains popular in Europe and Japan–not just as a delicacy–but as a staple. It is consumed in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chili, China, France, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malta, Mongolia, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In Sweden, it outsells mutton and lamb combined. Italy consumes more horse meat than any other country in the European Community.

American animal rights advocates decry foreign consumption as barbaric and taboo. Judaism and Hinduism forbid the consumption of horsemeat. Islam prohibits eating donkeys. Christianity’s only specified taboo against eating horse flesh was issued in 732 A.D., by Pope Gregory III
[Sherman 2002, 57]. The non-biblically-based canon law was meant to protect horses which were too valuable to be sacrificed for the table. Instead, they were pressed into service by the church-sponsored cavalry at a time when Christianity was under attack from Muslim cavalry.

Hurt, R. Douglas. 2008. The Great Plains during World War II. U of Nebraska Press
Sherman, David M. 2002. Tending Animals in the Global Village. Wiley-Blackwell

QUEST:  a KQED Multimedia Series Exploring Northern California Science, Environment and Nature
~ How Nutritious Is Horse? The Other Red Meat, by Darya Pino, 1/7/11

Schatzker, Mark: author of Steak: One Man's Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef
~ Why you should eat horsemeat: It's delicious, 1/4/11

Update on Mexican processing facilities:
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

~ Horse slaughter conditions in Mexico explored by AAEP group, by 3/1/09
The Mission of AMillionHorses.com and AbandonedHorses.com is to
Document the Neglect and Abandonment of America's Horses
Last updated: June 08, 2011