Food taboos: Why won't Irish people eat horse meat?


When it comes to food there are some things people in Ireland will not put up with. The shock this week about the presence of horse DNA in burgers reminds us that, beyond concerns about traceability and contamination of the food chain, Irish people just won’t eat horse.

“In the European continent eating horse meat and donkey meat would be fairly common,” says Regina Sexton, a food historian based at University College Cork. The reason for our own reluctance is a cultural peculiarity. “There’s an affection and an antiquity to our affection for the horse in Ireland.”

Sexton calls our reluctance to eat horses a “food taboo” and observes that it’s just one of many. “I think there will always be taboo foods from a cultural perspective, a psychological perspective and an individual perspective.”

In the case of horses, as with dogs, the reasoning is largely sentimental. “We would have a relationship around it that is too sacred to contravene by eating it,” she says.

But we have many other food taboos. We don’t eat carnivores, for example. And Sexton notes that other foods that were formerly staples of the Irish diet fell out of fashion for pragmatic reasons – “rabbit was widely eaten before the advent of myxomatosis” – while we rarely eat some foods that we produce for a worldwide market.

Once a food is considered taboo in any way, an extra level of taboo gets attributed to eating it for economic necessity.

“Often in the past we have visited the world of taboo food in times of need and hardship,” says Sexton.

“We eat these foods when the staple food fails and we have no other choice. So they’re associated with want, extreme situations, poverty and so on.”

Indeed, many taboos that have grown around food have economic roots in the first place. Free food from nature has often been stigmatised despite attempts to circumvent this.

In 1940, in response to the outbreak of war, Vicomte de Mauduit, a Frenchman living in Britain, published ‘They Can’t Ration These’, a book of recipes for “food for free”, such as squirrel, nettles and hedgehog. (Wrap it in clay and bake it to get the spines out.) It was part of a widespread attempt to reorient conservative British food culture in the face of shortages and rationing, but none of these foods ever quite took off.

“Food for free has always been looked on with suspicion,” says Sexton. “There is a small tradition of eating hedgehogs in Ireland, but it would be with groups that are outside the mainstream, marginal groups, like the Travelling community. Nettle soup and wild plants would have been eaten much more in the past, and around coastal areas shellfish were widely eaten, but nobody broadcast the fact that these things were eaten because they were too commonplace, and so there was a taboo around them.”

Of course, food cultures change, new foods enter our diets and shameful ones are reclaimed. “Formerly taboo foods like wild plants are now the epitome of fashion for the leisured classes,” says Sexton. She’s less confident that horse meat will ever become an Irish delicacy.

Dr Michael Wallace, a lecturer in agricultural economics at University College Dublin, says the primary impediment to the production of horse meat for Irish consumption is cultural.

“Right across Europe there’s no shortage of horse meat,” he says. “It’s an abundance of a very cheap sort of protein. There are a small number of Irish meat factories licensed to slaughter horses, but all those carcasses are exported and go to continental Europe.

“As for Irish people eating horse meat? I’ve heard of people going to France and sampling horse meat and feeling that that was okay but that they wouldn’t order it in a restaurant here.

“I don’t think there would be a problem producing it if the market was there. Like any small businesspeople, farmers can adapt really quickly to what the public wants, but before people started producing horse meat for the Irish consumer there’d have to be strong economic incentives there which currently don’t exist.”

Sexton believes the current scandal reveals less about old taboos about eating horses and more about a newer taboo: squeamishness about where food comes from in the first place.

“Killing the pig would have been a commonplace activity in Irish farms until well into the 20th century, and children would have grown up with the image of seeing hearts, intestines, blood, kidneys and so on,” she says.

“People are increasingly ignorant of where our food comes from and how the supply chain works. If they knew a bit more I think they wouldn’t be surprised to find that foreign bodies could slip in.”

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