What’s a pet to some is dinner for others

What’s food and what’s taboo depends on a lot of things, including how human societies
developed, what made sense in different regions, and how humans ordered their world

What’s food and what’s taboo depends on a lot of things, including how human societies developed, what made sense in different regions, and how humans ordered their world

Don McMahon gets a mixed reaction when he tells people what was served at his wedding reception in Uzbekistan last year.

“Some people are kind of disgusted or surprised, and others are like, so what?” said the Winnipeg-based plumber and handyman, whose in-laws dished out dog stew following a ceremony in Tashkent.

“Really, it tasted pretty much like beef,” said McMahon, adding he doesn’t see a difference between ladling out dog stew and biting into a hamburger.

“Both were animals,” he points out.

The answer to the question — Which animals are food and which are taboo? — isn’t the same across the world, and has been a hot news topic since the discovery of horsemeat in products labelled as beef in Europe this winter.

But would the outcry over the mislabelled meat have been the same if the adulterated products had contained chicken or turkey instead of horsemeat?

Melanie Joy thinks not.

“We are conditioned or socialized in meat-eating cultures around the world to perceive a select, small group of animals as edible and the rest are perceived as inedible… or even disgusting and offensive,” said the psychologist and author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.

A decade ago, Joy coined the term “carnism” to describe the belief system that allows for the consumption of meat, and as a counterpoint to veganism and vegetarianism.

People make a choice when they eat meat, said Joy.

Although some would argue humans eat meat as a result of evolution or biological need, few dispute the role of culture in food choice.

Those who work in the animal welfare field are aware that not everyone views cats and dogs as pets; some people see them as livestock.

“I think you have to respect that there are cultural differences,” said Winnipeg Humane Society CEO Bill McDonald. “When you start trying to impose cultural changes diet-wise, where do you draw the line? It’s a very difficult issue.

“If some individuals are fine eating horse… then it’s their personal choice. Blanket bans are not a good idea.”

They certainly can have unintended consequences.

In 2007, the U.S. ended federal inspection of horse slaughter facilities, effectively making it impossible to slaughter equines or sell horsemeat domestically. The result? Horses being shipped long distances to Mexico or Canada for slaughter, often under questionable conditions in facilities designed for cattle.

In 2012, 82,195 horses were slaughtered in Canada.

“We’ve always worked along the principles of humanely raised, humanely transported and humanely slaughtered,” said McDonald.

But no matter how humanely horses are transported and killed, Americans are unlikely to embrace the meat. A recent survey by an animal rights group found 80 per cent of Americans opposed horse slaughter and consumption.

“We have this order in the world and the problem with horses, at least in the United States, is that they really do fall closer to the pet spectrum than they do to the food spectrum,” said David Beriss, co-editor of Food Anthropology and chair of the University of New Orleans department of anthropology.

“There’s also this whole sort of history of horses in our society — they helped conquer the West, they’re Paul Revere’s ride, they’re kind of mythological beasts.”

There are a few avenues of thought when it comes to why some people eat certain plants and animals, while others don’t, said Beriss.

One theory is that as societies developed, people ate what lived in close proximity.

“So you have this environmental thing, but then you also have an ecological approach or sustainability approach, which argues that people choose what to eat or not to eat on the basis of what they can sustain,” said Beriss.

So, the theory goes, Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork because it was ecologically inappropriate to raise pigs in the Middle East, and Hindus don’t eat cows because they were more valuable as draft animals, he said.

However, that doesn’t explain why, for example, someone who moves to Canada from India would continue to shun beef, he added.

British anthropologist Mary Douglas took a look at the Book of Leviticus for her theory on food choice, an Old Testament text that influences both Christian and Jewish traditions.

“She argues that it paints a picture of an orderly world, you have certain animals that have cloven hooves and chew their cud and you can eat them,” said Beriss. “If they don’t have those things they are not correct land animals, they are a kind of abomination, so you can’t eat them.”

In other words, our food choices give order to the world by allotting both humans and animal a specific place in the order of things. This also helps explain why taboos are enshrined religious texts; the Muslim ban on pork is found in the Quran and the Sanskrit Hymns in the Rigveda warn Hindus against eating beef.

Food is also a way to differentiate you from your neighbours. That may help explain why the English have a strong taboo against eating horse, while the French embrace it.

Canadians, it seems, fall somewhere in between when it comes to horsemeat.

The Quebec food chain Frite Alors! lists both beef and “cheval” as options for steak tartare. And at least two restaurants in Winnipeg have horsemeat dishes available — but neither are keen to publicize it.

“It’s not really a popular idea right now,” said one Winnipeg chef who didn’t want to go on the record.

Food taboos aren’t static, said Joy, adding tastes can change over time especially if there is a change in public awareness, like that prompted by Europe’s horsemeat scandal.

She points to a shift in developed countries towards vegan and vegetarian choices that even meat processors are recognizing.

“Some of the companies that do meat packing now offer vegan products,” she said.

But cultural preferences aside, eating animals that cross the domestic divide — such as horses and dogs — can pose a health concern if the meat isn’t properly sourced and medical interventions aren’t tracked.

“Most of the drugs that are used in horse treatment are actually prohibited from the human food chain,” said McDonald.

Earlier this year, the drug phenylbutazone was found in slaughter horses in the U.K. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a zero-tolerance policy for phenylbutazone and requires all horses slaughtered for food to be accompanied by complete identity and medical records.

But unless animals are raised for human consumption, McDonald said concerns remain.

The larger issue isn’t about what species of animals we choose to eat, but whether we can trust the ingredient labels in today’s industrial food system, said Beriss.

“The horsemeat scandal points to a real contradiction in our food system,” he said. “People want to know where their food comes from, they want to be reassured that it is what it purports to be.

“But at the same time though, we want our industrially produced food because it’s cheap and easy to get.”

— Shannon VanRaes is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator in Winnipeg. Includes files from Co-operator reporter Daniel Winters.


About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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