Horse meat

Horse meat

Horse meat is the culinary name for meat cut from a horse. It is slightly sweet, tender, low in fat, and high in protein. It is nutritious and free of transmissible disease problems such as B.S.E., scrapie and E. coli which are being detected with increasing frequency in other types of commonly eaten meat. For the majority of mankind’s early existence wild horses were hunted as a bulk source of protein. With the rise of civilization mankind found new purposes for the horse, as a companion and a worker; these historical associations, as well as ritual and religion played a part in the development of the aversion to the consumption of horse meat. The horse is now given pet status by many in the western world, which further entrenches the taboo on eating its flesh. The avoidance of eating horse meat (or indeed a taste for it), is relatively modern, with a complex historical and cultural origins.


In the late Paleolithic (Magdalenian Era), wild horses formed an important source of food.

In pre-Christian times, horse meat was eaten in northern Europe as part of indigenous Germanic pagan religious ceremonies, particularly those associated with the worship of Odin.

France dates its taste for horse meat to the Revolution. With the fall of aristocracy, its auxiliaries had to find other ways. Just as hairdressers and tailors oriented themselves to serve commoners, the horses maintained by aristocracy as a sign of prestige ended alleviating the hunger of lower classes. It was during the Napoleonic campaigns when the surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of horses. At the siege of Alexandria, the meat of young Arab horses relieved an epidemic of scurvy. At the battle of Eylau in 1807, Larrey served horse as soup and bœuf à la mode. In Aspern-Essling (1809), cut from the supply lines, the cavalry used the horses' breastplates as cooking pots and gunpowder as seasoning, and thus founded a tradition. Horse meat gained widespread acceptance in French cuisine during the later years of the Second French Empire. The high cost of living in Paris prevented many working-class citizens from buying meat such as pork or beef, so in 1866 the French government legalized the eating of horse meat and the first butcher's shop specializing in horse meat opened in eastern Paris, providing quality meat at lower prices. During the Siege of 1870-71, horse meat was eaten by anyone who could afford it, partly because of a shortage of fresh meat in the blockaded city, and also because horses were eating grain which was needed by the human populace. Many Parisians gained a taste for horse meat during the siege, and after the war ended, horse meat remained popular.

Despite the general Anglophone taboo, horse and donkey meat was eaten in Britain, especially in Yorkshire, until the 1930s.

The taboo

Which cultures

Horse is commonly eaten in many countries in Europe and Asia. It is a taboo food in English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, the US, English Canada, and Australia; it is also taboo amongst the Romany people and in Brazil and India. Horse meat is not generally eaten in Spain, although the country exports horses both "on the hoof and on the hook" (i.e., live animals and slaughtered meat) for the French and Italian market; however, horse meat is consumed in some Latin American countries such as Mexico. It is illegal in some countries. In Tonga horse meat is eaten nationally, and Tongan emigrees living in Utah have retained the taste for it, claiming Christian missionaries originally introduced it to them .

In many Muslim countries horse meat is generally forbidden or considered makruh, meaning it is not forbidden, but close to being such as 'detestable'. One reason given for its prohibition is the need for horses in military and other uses, and as such, considering the decline in usage of horses as in ages past, some consider its consumption permissible. Horse meat is eaten in some Muslim Central Asian countries with a tradition of nomadic pastoralism, e.g., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In other majority-Muslim countries there have been many instances, especially wars and famine, when horses were slaughtered and eaten.

Horse meat is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws because horses do not have cloven hooves and they are not ruminants. It has been suggested that this holds a practical purpose as horses were used as a means of transportation and did work.

In the eighth century, Popes Gregory III and Zachary instructed Saint Boniface, missionary to the Germans, to forbid the eating of horse flesh to those he converted, due to its association with Germanic pagan ceremonies. The people of Iceland allegedly expressed reluctance to embrace Christianity for some time, largely over the issue of giving up horse meat. The culturally close people of Sweden still have an ambivalent attitude to horsemeat, said to stem from this time.

Reasons for the taboo

In some countries the effects of this prohibition by the Roman Catholic Church have lingered, and horse meat prejudices have progressed from taboos, to avoidance, to abhorrence. In other parts of the world, horse meat has the stigma of being something poor people eat and is seen as a cheap substitute for other meats, such as pork and beef.

According to the anthropologist Marvin Harris, London, some cultures class horsemeat as taboo because the horse converts grass into meat less efficiently than ruminants. When breeding cattle for meat, a cow or a sheep will produce more meat than a horse if fed with the same amount of grass. However, these cattle (apart from the ox) cannot be used as working animals, and this argument does not address the issue of meat wastage.

There is also an element of sentimentality, as horses have long enjoyed a close relationship with many humans, on a similar level to household pets – this can be seen projected in such Anglophone popular culture icons as Black Beauty or even My Little Pony. Compare with the anthropomorphic pigs in Babe and Charlotte's Web.

Totemistic taboo is also a possible reason for refusal to eat horsemeat as an everyday food, but did not necessarily preclude ritual slaughter and consumption. Roman sources state that the goddess Epona was widely worshipped in Gaul and southern Britain. Epona, a triple aspect goddess, was the protectress of the horse and horse keepers, and horses were sacrificed to her ; she was paralleled by the Irish Macha and Welsh Rhiannon. The Uffington White Horse is probable evidence of ancient horse worship. The ancient Indian Brahmins engaged in horse sacrifice, as recorded in the Vedas. In 1913, the Finnic Mari people of the Volga region were observed to practice a horse sacrifice..

In ancient Scandinavia, the horse was very important, as a living, working creature, as a sign of the owner's status, and symbolically within the old Norse religion. Horses were slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods and the meat was eaten by the people taking part in the religious feasts. When the Nordic countries were Christianized, eating horsemeat was regarded as a sign of paganism and prohibited. A slight skepticism against eating horsemeat is still common as a reminder of this in these countries even today.

It is notable that, despite horses having been bred in England since pre-Roman times, the English language has no widely used term for horse meat, as opposed to four for pig meat (pork, bacon, ham, gammon), three for sheep meat (lamb, hogget and mutton), two for cow meat (beef and veal), and so on. English speaking countries, however, have sometimes marketed horsemeat under the euphemism "cheval meat" (cheval being the French for horse). Also, note that the words pork, bacon, mutton, veal, and beef all derive from an old version of French, because of the class structure of England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE: the poor (Saxons) tended the animals, while the rich (French-speaking Normans) ate the meat.


In most countries where horses are slaughtered for food, they are processed in a similar fashion to cattle, i.e., in large-scale factory slaughter houses (abattoirs) where they are stunned with a captive bolt gun and bled to death. (Note that it is not always clear whether "horse slaughter" refers only to horse meat for human consumption, or whether it also includes pet food and meat for carnivores, e.g. in zoos; see knacker.)

As horses are relatively poor converters of grass and grain to flesh compared to cattle, they are not usually bred or raised specifically for their meat. Instead, horses are slaughtered when their other value as riding or work animals is low, as for example in the routine export of the southern English ponies from the New Forest, Exmoor, and Dartmoor.. British law requires the use of "equine passports" even for semi-wild horses to enable traceability (also known as "provenance"), so most slaughtering is done in the UK before the meat is exported.

Ex-racehorses, riding horses, and other horses sold at auction may also enter the food chain; sometimes these animals have been stolen or purchased under false pretenses. Even famous horses may end up in the slaughterhouse; the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year winner, Ferdinand, is believed to have been slaughtered in Japan, probably for pet food.

In 2005, the eight principal horsemeat producing countries produced over 700,000 tonnes of this product.

Major Horsemeat Production Countries, 2005
Country Animals Production in Metric Tons
Italy 213,000 48,000
Mexico 626,000 78,876
Kazakhstan 340,000 55,100
Kyrgyzstan 150,000 25,000
China 1,700,000 204,000
Brazil 162,000 21,200
Argentina 255,000 55,600
Mongolia 310,000 38,000
4,727,829 720,168

The British newspaper The Daily Mail reports that every year, 100,000 live horses are transported into and around the European Union for human consumption, mainly to Italy but also to France and Belgium.

Meat from horses that veterinarians have put down with a lethal injection is not consumed, as the toxin remains in the meat; the carcasses of such animals are cremated (all other means of disposal are problematic, due to the toxin).

Opposition to production

The killing of horses for human consumption is widely opposed in countries such as USA and Britain where horses are generally considered to be companion and sporting animals only. French actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot has spent years crusading against the eating of horse meat. However, the opposition is far from unanimous; a 2007 readers' poll in the London magazine Time Out showed that 82% of respondents supported celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's decision to serve horse meat in his restaurants (see further discussion here).


Horse meat has a slightly sweet taste reminiscent of a combination of beef and venison. Meat from younger horses tends to be lighter in color while older horses produce richer color and flavor, as with most mammals. Horse meat can be used to replace beef, pork, mutton, and any other meat in virtually any recipe.

Those preparing sandwiches or cold meals with horse meat usually use it smoked and salted. Horse meat forms an ingredient in several traditional recipes of salami.

Horse meat in various countries


Horse leberkäse is available and quite popular at various hot dog stands. Dumplings can also be prepared with horse meat, spinach or Tyrolean Graukäse (a sour milk cheese). They are occasionally eaten on their own, in a soup, or as a side-dish.


In Belgium, horse meat (paardenvlees in Dutch and viande chevaline in French) is highly prized. It is used in steak tartare, in which, compared to the beef equivalent, the richer flavor of the horse meat lends itself better to the pungent seasoning used in preparation. Besides being served raw, it can be broiled for a short period, producing a crusty exterior and a raw, moist interior. Smoked horse meat is very popular as breakfast and sandwich meat. Horse steaks are also very popular; the town of Vilvoorde has a few restaurants specializing in this dish. Horse-sausage is a well known local specialty in Lokeren with European recognition.

It is widely believed that traditional Belgian fried potatoes (pommes frites) were cooked in horse fat, but in fact ox fat (suet) was used, although for health reasons this has been supplanted by nut oil (considered inferior by many).


Agriculture in the province of Québec seems to prosper under the prohibitions from the United States. There is a thriving horse meat business in this province; the meat is available in most supermarket chains. Horse meat is also for sale at the other end of the country, in Granville Island Market in downtown Vancouver where, according to a Time magazine reviewer who smuggled it into the United States, it turned out to be a "sweet, rich, superlean, oddly soft meat, closer to beef than venison". However, the majority of Canada has a taboo similar to that of the United States regarding the sale and consumption of Horse meat. This mentality is especially strong in the province of Alberta, where strong horse racing and breeding industries and cultures have existed since the province's founding.


In Chile it is used in charqui.


Horse meat is not available in most parts of China, although it is generally acceptable to Chinese. Its lack of popularity is mostly due to its low availability and some rumors saying that horse meat tastes bad or it is bad for health, even poisonous. In Compendium of Materia Medica, a pharmaceutical text published in 1596, Li Shizhen wrote "To relieve toxin caused by eating horse meat, one can drink carrot juice and eat almond." Today, in southwestern China, there are locally famous dishes such as Horse Meat Rice Vermicelli (马肉米粉) in Guilin. In the northwest, Kazakhs eat horse meat.


In France, specialized butcher shops (boucheries chevalines) sell horsemeat, as ordinary butcher shops have been for a long time forbidden to deal in it. However, since the 1990s, it can be found in supermarket butcher shops and others. An organization called La Viande Chevaline (literally, "horsemeat") exists to promote the industry, offering consumer information such as recipes, nutrition, purchase locations, and so on. According to its website, approximately 15 000 horses a year are raised for meat production, mostly draft breeds. It argues that the economic importance of horsemeat helps maintain the genetic heritage of traditional French breeds. See also Blood of the Beasts.


In Germany, horse meat is traditionally used in sauerbraten, a strongly marinated type of sweet-sour braised meat dish; in the last couple of decades, beef has become more commonly used. This dish is often eaten with Klöße (potato dumplings, in the Rhineland) or Spätzle (noodles, in Southern Germany) and red cabbage. Rosswurst (horse sausage) is a sausage containing horse meat and beef and is mostly sold in Bavaria.


In Iceland it is both eaten minced and as steak, also used in stews and fondue, prized for its strong flavor.


In Indonesia, one type of satay (chunks of grilled meat served with spicy sauce) known as sate jaran is made from horse meat. This delicacy from Yogyakarta is served with sliced fresh shallot (small red onion), pepper, and sweet soy sauce.


Italian cuisine is highly regional. Horse meat is used in a stew called pastissada, served as horse or colt steaks, as carpaccio, or made into bresaola. Horse fat is used in recipes such as Cookbook:Pezzetti di Cavallo. In the region of Veneto a dish is prepared which consists of shredded, cured horsemeat on a bed of arugula, dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Also in Veneto, horsemeat sausages called salsiccia di equino and thin strips of horse meat called sfilacci are sold. The straight horsemeat steak carne di cavallo, similar to classic American Porterhouse steak, is generally available in the Alto Adige/Südtirol region of the Italian Alps. Chefs and consumers tend to prize its uniqueness by serving it as rare as possible. Donkey is also cooked, for example as a pasta sauce called stracotto d'asino. According to British food writer Matthew Fort, "The taste for donkey and horse goes back to the days when these animals were part of everyday agricultural life. In the frugal, unsentimental manner of agricultural communities, all the animals were looked on as a source of protein. Waste was not an option.


In Japanese cuisine, raw horse meat is called sakura (桜) or sakuraniku (桜肉, sakura means cherry blossom, niku means meat) because of its pink colour. It can be served raw as very chewy sashimi in thin slices dipped in soy sauce, often with ginger and onions added. In this case, it is called basashi (馬刺し). Fat, typically from the neck, is also found as basashi, though it is white, not pink. Horse meat is also sometimes found on menus for yakiniku (a type of barbecue), where it is called baniku (馬肉, literally, "horse meat") or bagushi ("skewered horse"); thin slices of raw horse meat are sometimes served wrapped in a shiso leaf. Kumamoto, Matsumoto and Ōita are famous for basashi, and it is common in the Tohoku region as well. There is also a dessert made from horse meat called basashi ice cream. The company that makes it is known for its unusual ice cream flavors, many of which have limited popularity.


In Kazakhstan horse meat is a large part of the diet, due mainly to the nomadic roots of the population. Some of the dishes include sausages called kazy and shuzhuk made from the meat using the guts as the sausage skin, zhaya made from hip meat which is smoked and boiled, zhal made from neck fat which is smoked and boiled, karta made from a section of the rectum which is smoked and boiled, and sur-yet which is kept as dried meat.


In Malta stallion meat (Laħam taż-żiemel) is commonly used in various dishes. It is usually fried or baked in a white wine sauce.


Mongolia, a nation famous for its nomadic pastures and equestrian skills, also includes horse meat on the menu. Mongolians also make a horse milk wine.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, smoked horse meat (paardenrookvlees) is sold as sliced meat and eaten on bread. There are also beef-based variants. Horse meat is also used in sausages (paardenworst). The popularity of both varies regionally.


In Norway horse meat is used in some sausages, such as Vossafår.


Used in production of kabanos, recently declining in popularity.


Horse meat is generally available in Slovenia. Colt steak (žrebičkov zrezek) is available in some restaurants and there is a popular fast-food restaurant in Ljubljana called Hot-Horse that serves hamburgers made of horse meat.


In Sweden horse meat outsells lamb and mutton combined. Smoked/cured horse meat is widely available as a cold cut under the name hamburgerkött (hamburger meat). It tends to be very thinly sliced and fairly salty, slightly reminiscent of deli-style ham. Gustafskorv, a smoked sausage made from horse meat, is also quite popular, especially in the south of Sweden. It is similar to salami or medwurst and is used as an alternative to them, on sandwiches, in salads, on pizza, etc.


In Switzerland horse meat may be used in Fondue Bourguignonne. Horse steak is also quite common, especially in the French-speaking West, but also more and more in the German-speaking part. A speciality known as mostbröckli is made with beef or horse meat. Horse meat is also used for a great range of sausages in the German-speaking North of Switzerland.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom the slaughter, preparation and consumption of horses for food is not against the law, although in practice it has been out of fashion since the 1930s and there is a strong taboo against it (see above). It was eaten when other meats were scarce, such as during times of war (as was whale meat, never popular and now also taboo). The sale of horse meat in supermarkets and butchers is minimal, and most of the horse meat consumed in the UK is imported from Europe, predominantly the South of France, where it is more widely available.

Horse meat may be consumed inadvertently. A Food Standards Agency 2003 investigation revealed that salami sometimes contains horse meat, without this ingredient being listed. Listing is legally required.

United States

People in the United States rarely eat horse meat today, but during World War II, due to the low supply and high price of beef, the state of New Jersey legalized its sale. At war's end, the state again prohibited the sale of horse meat, possibly in response to pressure from the beef lobby. Harvard University's Faculty Club had horse meat on the menu for over one hundred years, until 1983. It was available there by special order more recently than that. Until 2007, a few horse meat abattoirs still existed in the United States, selling meat to zoos to feed their carnivores, and exporting it for human consumption, but recently the last has closed by court order.

In 1951, Time magazine reported from Portland, Ore.: “Horsemeat, hitherto eaten as a stunt or only as a last resort, was becoming an important item on Portland tables. Now there were three times as many horse butchers, selling three times as much meat.” Noting that “people who used to pretend it was for the dog now came right out and said it was going on the table,” and providing tips for cooking pot roast of horse and equine fillets. A similar situation unfolded in 1973, when inflation raised the cost of traditional meats. Time reported that “Carlson’s, a butcher shop in Westbrook, Conn., that recently converted to horsemeat exclusively, now sells about 6,000 pounds of the stuff a day.” The shop produced a 28-page guide called “Carlson’s Horsemeat Cook Book,” with recipes for chili con carne, German meatballs, beery horsemeat, and more.

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