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How it became impossible for Americans to buy horse meat

Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Cure, a well-regarded Pittsburgh restaurant along the Allegheny River, found itself on the brunt end of the internet police stick last month. It happened after a one-night-only collaboration dinner with several Canadian chefs in which Cure served a food almost never seen at American restaurants today: horse meat.

The dish was not intended to attract publicity—Cure is a five-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Award, and the dish was presented as tartare (with cured egg yolk and black garlic aioli), a popular preparation in Western dining cultures where horse meat is served. But news of the menu item quickly spread, and critics flooded Cure’s Facebook page expressing outrage, many decrying the immorality of eating a beloved domesticated pet, others noting the danger of consuming an animal with a reputation for being administered growth- and performance-enhancing drugs. (The post also had its share of supporters as well, arguing culinary libertarianism.)

No animal has been anthropomorphized more in popular culture than the horse, portrayed as man’s noble companion through centuries of literature and decades of television and film. Horses are sports heroes (The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit), noble warriors (War Horse), fodder for comedy (Mister Ed); are made to feel human emotions (The Horse Whisperer, Black Beauty); and can cure a broken heart (“Tennessee Stud“ by Jimmy Driftwood). The horse has crossed the threshold of an animal that’s become more than an animal, and therefore Americans don’t see a horse and think “food.” But unlike the dog, another beloved human companion that Americans don’t eat, horse is a ubiquitous meat in many parts of the world.

While eating horse meat in America is not illegal, finding a purveyor that sells it is all but impossible. American chefs who want to serve horse might resort to sneaking the meat across borders (representatives at Cure declined to comment for this story, but chef Justin Severino said the meat was sourced from a sustainable horse farm in Alberta, Canada). And yet, in cities as close to the U.S. as Toronto and Montreal, horse meat has become so ingrained in fine-dining culture that it’s as commonplace as venison on menus.

“It’s not taboo, it’s not entirely mainstream, but it’s there for the most part, and people don’t really raise an eyebrow about it,” says Chris Nuttall-Smith, former restaurant critic for Canada’s The Globe And Mail (and a contributor to The A.V. Club). “It’s like a super-charged meat. It’s beef but darker, more iodine-y. It’s got a rich and beautiful flavor, whether served raw or as a tenderloin. It’s delicious.”

A horse stands in front of a Washington, D.C. butcher shop in 1943 (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

It’s an everyday meat in Central Asia, served with regularity in Italy (especially in the Veneto), and popular in Japan, where it’s often presented raw as sashimi. But in the U.S.—save for a few years during World War I and II when the price of beef skyrocketed—the idea of humans eating horse never caught on. While it’s mostly perceived as a cultural taboo today, for many years horse meat was stigmatized more for being a cheap, inferior meat, better suited for dogs than humans. (It should be noted that, at one point, lobster was also denigrated as a meat for the lower class, though lobsters would not go on to earn pop cultural nobility.)

Up until 2007, the U.S. was home to a number of horse slaughterhouses, but the meat it produced was exported to Europe. Those remaining facilities—in Illinois and Texas—were shut down by laws in their respective states. On the federal level, Congress passed a measure that banned funding for the United States Department Of Agriculture to inspect horse slaughterhouses. (Horse meat production never really stopped, though—American horses were transported to Canadian and Mexican plants.) In 2011, the Obama administration lifted the ban on USDA funding—proponents argued it would help control the rising wild equine population—but the ban was reinstated in 2014. The law does not explicitly ban the slaughtering of horses, but effectively prohibits the sale of horse meat in the U.S.

“If you want horse meat, it is not illegal for an individual to slaughter a horse on their property for personal use,” says Dr. Michael Fisher, a retired public health veterinarian with the USDA Food Safety And Inspection Service. “The key word is personal use. I can serve it to my non-paying guests. As soon as you prepare it for a meal and someone pays for that, now it involves commerce. The government has a right to regulate commerce.”

Just last month, the Trump administration proposed easing the ban once again. Citing the rising costs that the Bureau Of Land Management spends on feeding wild horses—about $50 million a year—Trump’s 2018 fiscal budget includes a provision that would “humanely euthanize” wild horses and sell them for slaughter, at a savings of $10 million.

While the American public likely won’t demand horse meat with the frequency of beef and pork (“I can’t envision it happening any time,” says Mark Dopp of the trade association North American Meat Institute), there are those in the food world who see value in horse meat as part of the American culinary landscape. But they cite reasons beyond its gastronomic qualities, like relieving the overburdened, and in many cases cruel, conditions of the commodity meats industries.

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, told the Chicago Tribune in 2011, “The reasons I’m very excited about [easing horse meat restrictions] is that people eating donkey or horse means less feedlot cattle being consumed. We could literally change, one meal at a time, the bad parts of the food system.”

Others in the culinary world, such as butcher Rob Levitt of Chicago’s The Butcher & Larder, say there’s a hypocrisy among those aghast at eating horse meat, even horse raised responsibly, but who would consume supermarket meats without a second thought. “I wonder how many of these self-righteous naysayers tucked into a Tyson chicken breast. I wonder how much frozen slave-labor shrimp they eat,” Levitt says. “These animals suffer. The people condemning [Cure restaurant] will feed their children Oscar Mayer hot dogs while eating a spicy tuna roll from their favorite sushi delivery spot, as if those things are any better. They are far, far worse.”