Just say neigh: Horse meat in burgers horrifies U.K.

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LONDON (AP) — In Britain, a horse is a horse — not a main course.

Tesco, the country’s biggest supermarket chain, took out full-page newspaper ads Thursday to apologize for an unwanted ingredient in some of its hamburgers: horse meat.

Ten million burgers have been taken off store shelves after the revelation that beef products from three companies in Ireland and Britain contained horse DNA. Most had only small traces, but one brand of hamburger sold by Tesco had meat content that was 29 percent horse. The contrite grocer told customers that “we and our supplier have let you down and we apologize.”

Reaction to the scandal in Britain goes beyond concerns about contaminated food. While people in some countries happily dine on equine flesh, in the land of “Black Beauty” and “National Velvet,” the idea fills many with horror.

Britain says neigh

Labour Party environment spokeswoman Mary Creagh reflected the feelings of many when she said Thursday that eating horse meat is “strongly culturally taboo in the United Kingdom.”

She was echoing prohibitions in Western cultures that go back to 732 A.D., when Pope Gregory III declared horse eating a pagan practice.

Horse meat has never been a staple of European diets, but from the mid-19th century it was eaten in countries including Britain as cheap filler food for the poor.

“It tended to be in burgers and potted meats and sausages as cheap supplementary food,” said culinary historian Annie Gray. “And it wasn’t always labeled, just as we’re finding out at the moment.”

The sale of horse meat in the United Kingdom continued through the 1930s Depression and World War II, when many foods were rationed.

But hippophagy — eating horses — never really caught on in Britain, a land of horse lovers and beef eaters.

“The eating of beef is totally symbolic of being English,” Ms. Gray said, so horse was always going to be seen as a poor substitute.

Vive la difference

Horse meat is eaten in European countries such as France, Belgium and Italy, as well as by many in China, among the traditionally nomadic people of Central Asia and in parts of Latin America.

In France, specialist horse butchers and supermarkets sell “viande chevaline.” There and in Belgium it’s popular both cooked and raw, in a form of steak tartare.

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