A hamburger is a bun, beef patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard, except when the patty is, in reality, horse meat.
This stomach-churning story has been the reality for millions across Europe who have consumed products that were, in some cases, 100 percent horse meat. The use of horse meat in products represents a fundamental breakdown on the food system and exemplifies the politics of disgust: the moral, political and taste aversion to what is perceived as disgusting.
Much of the outrage surrounding the horse meat scandal surrounds the issue of horse meat itself. Horse meat is in fact no more morally outrageous or disgusting than chicken, beef or pork.
Britain is quite ruffled by the thought of horse meat in their Burger King meal (where the scandal started) or their prepackaged lasagna. Americans too would be quite repulsed by the thought of eating Seabiscuit. Since President Barack Obama signed a bill lifting the ban on horse slaughter in 2011, there has only been one application to open a horse meat factory.
The disgust for foods such as dog and horse meat, organs and foie gras is extremely strong (strong enough to put political pressure on countries that consume such foods). Yet Americans seem perfectly comfortable gorging themselves on ambiguously shaped chicken nuggets from factory-farmed chickens and slabs of greyish beef from cows that spend their lives packed so closely they cannot turn around.
Our cultural and moral abhorrence toward certain foods ignores the uncomfortable truths of our food system. It is easy to crucify the failure of meatpackers to prevent horsemeat from entering burgers. It is much more difficult, however, to hold a mirror to our own eating practices.
The meat industry has undergone little change since Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Instead, slaughterhouses have merely moved inside clean, closed-door processing facilities. Mostly poorly paid immigrant laborers work long hours in jobs with extremely high injury rates. Alongside are millions of animals that are raised in tight quarters, fed cocktails of drugs and often pass on foodborne diseases to consumers. The multiple food recalls each year are a testament to a system that is slow to change.
The thought of eating man’s best friend is shocking, disgusting and unpalatable (even for me). We treat dogs, cats and horses with respect and even admiration for the ways they benefit our lives. Yet we show none of that same regard for cows, pigs, chickens or sheep (usually lambs).
This is not a vegetarian manifesto, though I hold those who choose vegetarianism in high regard. Our moral outrage at the thought of eating a dog or a horse should be translated to the compassion of Fern for Wilbur the Pig in “Charlotte’s Web.” Animals must be treated humanely, raised naturally (this means cutting high-corn diets) and be viewed as biological creatures, not merely food capital.
This factory farm-to-slaughterhouse system is mechanical (and brutal) in nature, and also is seemingly able and willing to slip horse meat into beef patties or pink slime into just about everything else. The perversion is not in what is killed, but instead the system that simply doesn’t care.
Samuel Mendelson is a sophomore in the School of International Service.