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Updated 18 April 2013

May the horse be with you

Why will most people happily eat cows, but not horses? The answer's more bizarre than you think, says CyberShrink.

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Regular readers will surely be very relieved to learn that, after exhaustive DNA testing, it has been confirmed that Cybershrink contains absolutely no horse-meat. And the amounts of iguana and Arctic wolf are negligible.

It's been a bad year for carnivores. Just weeks ago I was joking with a friend who was visiting Britain, asking how he was enjoying his diet of horse-meat. The scandal arrived and put people off their meat feasts at an apt time, around Lent, whose attendant carnivals celebrated literally "carne vale": Farewell to Meat.

Then the Stellenbosch results came out, suggesting that our local mysterious meat products  included less horse, and more goat, donkey and water buffalo. Apparently nearly 70% of patties and sausages may contain alien species. Not to mention the biltong made, remarkably, from giraffe and kangaroo (I thought I'd noticed a jump in prices recently). Apparently it's well recognised in Australia, and even has its own website (www.kangaroobiltong.com).

The scandal reminded me of the ancient jokes about the diner complaining: "Waiter ! There's a fly in my soup". In a fuller version, the customer said: "Waiter! What's this fly doing in my soup?" and the waiter, after peering at it, replied: "Looks like the breast-stoke, Sir!"

There have been surprisingly few even modestly amusing jokes about this latest crisis. There was some concern when a woman who found she'd eaten a Dobbin Burger was admitted to hospital in a panic; but her condition is now reported to be stable. Rod Liddle in the Spectator wrote of Tesco's Spaghetti Bologneighhhhhs", and pointed out that as the package claimed they used only "ingredients you'd find in your kitchen cupboards", some people must have enormous cupboards.

Of course the mane thing, the real issue, is one of honest and accurate labelling of food. Maybe, temporarily, the labels will simply read: "Contents: Mammal." Or would even that be too much to ask?

A short history of horse-eating

We may vary quite widely in what species we consider delectable or inedible, usually on a cultural basis. Here in Africa some people traditionally eat horse while others consider that a beastly habit. The British and French are firmly divided on this, and each considers the other peculiar about this. Vikings, otherwise pretty omnivorous, would not eat horse, and maybe passed on this prejudice to the Britons. The ancient Gauls, even when being starved by Julius Caesar, let their horses escape rather than eat them. Yet later the French became very fond of eating horse.

Parisian horse-meat butchers, are marked by large life-like horse's heads outside, mounted within a huge horse-shoe, sometimes outlined in neon. Mind you, I get confused by French shop signs. A boulangerie is a splendid baker, though at first I thought it might specialise in Halloween underwear.

English-speaking countries tend to avoid eating horse, as does Argentina, Brazil, Israel (it is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws), and most Middle Eastern countries and much of Spain don't eat it, though Persians, Turks and Tatars consumed it. Pope Gregory III and later popes forbade their converts to Christianity from eating horse.

A major reason for disquiet about eating horse is that they're our largest form of pet. Many more of us love horses than love cows. Yet Gordon Ramsay, who seems lacking in sentimentality and fond of publicity, decided years back to serve horse meat in his restaurants, despite a significant outcry.

Health-wise there's no problem in eating horse, and it's a generally healthy lean meat. But all drugs and treatments used for horse ailments are labelled as unfit for human consumption, so they need a very clean bill of health. There's been some concern in the recent scandal about Bute (phenylbutazone) which is used to treat horses for inflammation and arthritis, but can be toxic to humans. But it's not as lethal as some scaremongers seem to suggest, and was indeed once used to treat humans as well.

"I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse"

So the main obstacle to eating horse-meat is psychological - we really don't like the idea of doing so. Sometimes we're willing to try curious foods. I remember trying snails in a fancy French restaurant, and found they were like chewy sponge rubber, with only the garlic butter sauce being enjoyable.

I did once eat roast Camel, encouraged by a friendly Sheikh, and it was rather tasty. But when I noticed that the carcass from which it was being carved was rather small, and thought about it as being from a really young camel, I lost my appetite.

Some have embraced the mission of knowing the origins of the meat they eat with possibly excessive fervour. A widely circulated pledge we are invited to, well, pledge ourselves to, says "I pledge that from today I will not buy anonymous meat of unknown origin. I want to know what it is, where it came from, what it ate and how it lived."

Don't stop there! Know the beast's hobbies, musical preferences; visit its Facebook page!But isn't there something creepy in this approach? It over-personalises the interaction. Generally, the better I know my meat, the less I feel like eating it. Otherwise the process becomes ever more like cannibalism. What next? Shepherd's Pie containing genuine Shepherd?

Don't eat the deer

I remember well, years ago, I was dining in a castle above the Rhine, during a phase when I was lecturing in Heidelberg. We were a cosmopolitan bunch round the dinner table, and discussing the menu. For some reason, the Italian speaker was not understanding the meaning of "venison" as one of the items. We tried in various ways to explain it, and eventually, seized by inspiration, I placed my thumbs on my temples, with my fingers outspread in imitation of antlers. My Italian friend grasped the concept immediately: "Aaah!" he exclaimed: "Bambi!" Somehow we all lost appetite for a meal of Bambi, and switched to fish.

Vegetarians need not feel too smug. Who can be certain of the contents of those veggie Burgers?

Soylent Green anybody?

(Professor MA Simpson, Health24, March 2013)

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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