The Horsemeat Scandal

March 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ikea withdraws Swedish meatballs as
horse contamination is revealed
Ikea halted sales of its Swedish meatballs yesterday as the horsemeat contamination scandal continued to spread across Europe.

Horsemeat was found in 1kg packets of frozen K├Âttbullar pork and beef meatballs sold by Ikea across Europe
— The Times (London), Feb. 26, 2013

And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them, speak unto the children of Israel, saying, whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

Of the swine ye shall not eat, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.

Of the lamb and the cow ye may eat, for they divideth the hoof and chew the cud.

Nevertheless these shall ye not eat:  the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

Nor shall ye eat of the horse, because, well, because it’s a horse dammit.  You just can’t eat horses, just like you can’t eat people

Horses aren’t people – we all know that.  But we treat them like people.  There’s a line we draw, and horses are on the people side of it, like the dogs and cats we keep in our houses.  We’d keep horses there too if they weren’t so damn big. And smelly. Little kids don’t write to Santa to bring them a cow or a swine.  But a pony – that’s a horse of another color. 

And just as we do for dogs, cats, and people, we give horses names – different names for each one.  We pay attention to the horse’s individual qualities.  We can have deep and meaningful relations with a horse just as we can with our dogs and cats.  Liz Taylor nuzzling National Velvet – or was it the other way round?

All cultures have dietary rules that separate what you can eat from what you can’t.  The rules of Leviticus are based on the characteristics of the animals.  Does a particular species conform to the specs for that category. Fish gotta swim.  They also gotta have fins and scales.  So if a shrimp or lobster swims in the water but doesn’t have fins and scales, it’s not a complete fish.  It’s weird*  Don’t touch it.  Don’t eat it.

But some rules seem to be based on our social relation to the animal. The animals that are closer, the ones that we name and talk to and treat like distinct individuals, of them we shall not eat.


* Anomalous is the term used by Mary Douglas. This post is based in part on an oversimplification of her Purity and Danger. It is also based in part on Edmund Leach.  Apologies to them, and to Leviticus.


Tamar said...

However, it was not only in non-horse-eating cultures, that people were outraged by the story. The story might have been differently framed in the US, in the UK or in Central Europe (the latter being a culture where horsemeat is being sold for human consumption).

Much of the outrage was not about the usage of horse as horse, but the usage of wrong labelling, and at that - of using meat that hasn't been controlled by veterinarians (given the fact that horsemeat is more expensive, e.g. horse salami is more expensive in its native Hungary; it is assumed that the horsemeat in question was from work-horses who have died, and before that received veterinarian drugs that are unsafe for human consumption).

Jay Livingston said...

I'm sure you're right. I was going to put all sorts of qualifications like that into the post, but I wanted to limit the post to a single idea. So, provincial that I am, I kept it to the US perspective. Why did the US press run the story and continue to cover it? Had the substitute been lamb or turkey or any other US-edible, nobody here would have cared what went on at Ikea.

(I didn't know that about Hungarian salami. I'll have to read the tiny print on the packages next time I'm at the deli counter. Thanks, Kedves.)