Why don’t Americans eat horses?

The great horse meat controversy of 2013 is growing with word today that Swedish meatballs sold by Ikea were found to contain horse meat in the Czech Republic.

Is this a health issue or a cultural issue? Yes.

In her essential guide to the horsemeat scandal, Felicity Lawrence of The Guardian says one problem is the drugs used in some horses:

Horses are routinely treated with an anti-inflammatory drug called phenylbutazone, or “bute”. Bute is banned from the human food chain, because it can in rare cases cause a potentially life threatening illness, aplastic anaemia, or bone marrow failure. Since it is not known what triggers the illness, it has not been possible to set any safe level for bute residues in human food. Doses from horsemeat are likely to be very low. Horse passports are supposed to record any bute administered so that animals can be excluded from going for food, but with large numbers of fake passports in circulation, some horses containing bute have been eaten.

And Marion Nestle, who writes the Food Politics blog, calls the scandal the politics of cultural identity. That is to say: We don’t eat horses.

Most Americans say they won’t eat horsemeat, are appalled by the very idea, and oppose raising horses for food, selling their meat, and slaughtering horses for any reason.

These attitudes have created dilemmas. Since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006, roughly 140,000 horses a year have been transported to Canada and Mexico to be killed. Whether this is better or worse for the horses is arguable. Some–perhaps most–of that meat will be exported as food.

And when Americans turn to horse meat, it means — usually — that we are in times of desperation. Oh yes, America, you’ve turned to horse meat before, Business Insider says:

There’s ample evidence that when food ran out during the Civil War and even World War II, eating horse meat became a common (and cheap) solution. In fact, it became so popular that by 1951, Time Magazine was reporting it was an important meat in Oregon cuisine, with recipes included at the end of the article for horse meat fillets.

In 1973, a similar food shortage occurred that sent butcher shops reaching once more for the horse meat. That same year, however, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania sponsored a bill to ban the sale of horse meat and make it illegal for horse slaughter houses to operate. It was the first time eating horse meat was legally questioned on a federal level in America.

Horse meat was effectively banned in the United States in 2007, when Congress stripped financing for federal inspections of horse slaughter, but this was reversed by Congress under Obama in 2011. (Though many states continue to have their own specific laws regarding horse slaughter and the sale of horse meat.)

But when any food scandal breaks, the real story isn’t so much what’s in the food, but why a system of inspection and monitoring wasn’t able to prevent it from reaching the dinner plate.

Asian seafood raised on pig feces, anyone?