Today, the United States is wrestling with a similar moral calculus to those in the French government who saw horse as a proper food for the poor. Valley Meat, the company hoping to operate the slaughter plant in Roswell, N.M., is not planning to sell meat in the United States, or at least not initially, but to ship the meat to Europe and other markets.
In America, horses may no longer share our lives as they did in the 19th century. But as they still live on in our imagination as comrades, pets, working animals, and creatures of beauty. The horse on your plate recalls that horse you may have ridden or those whom you admired at a distance for their speed or their endurance; horse meat is a “who” turned into a “what,” a living being turned into a thing. We see horses as fellow sufferers, not as food.
Then again, the pigs and cows we accept as food are not so different, except that few of us know them as pets or working animals. Our modern agricultural industries, along with terms like beef and pork, keep us at a distance from them, so that we need not recognize the animal in the meat. With horse, there is no escaping this recognition, and that is why horse meat is once again causing controversy. As in the 19th century, most of us don’t want to think about whom or what we may be eating. But our enduring discomfort suggests that we should.
Kari Weil is University Professor and Director of the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. Her book “Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?” was published in 2012.