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Why Did Eating Horsemeat Become Taboo?

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When news broke earlier this year that a spate of European supermarkets had been selling frozen beef products adulterated with horsemeat, a large portion of the Western world collectively wretched. A couple of the products in question—frozen hamburger patties and beef lasagna—showed horse DNA at levels ranging from trace amounts up to 100 percent, and were quickly pulled from freezer cases as the slaughterhouses of origin were investigated. The plot thickened this week after inspectors in the Czech Republic reported that samples from Ikea’s voraciously consumed meatballs turned up evidence of horse DNA, prompting the Swedish mega-retailer to halt sales of its marquee offering in 14 European countries.

As EU authorities try to make sense of the scandal and call for stricter oversight of Europe’s notoriously unregulated meatpacking industry, millions of people around the world are likely wondering what the big fuss is. Despite the notion of horses as pets and companions, horsemeat is widely and willingly consumed in countries ranging from Mexico to China to Italy. So how, exactly, did eating horsemeat become taboo for the rest of us?

NEIGH IT AIN’T SO

Humans have been hunting and eating wild horses since the end of the last ice age and, along with reindeer, the meat provided a vital source of protein. As early as 4000 BCE, however, fossil records indicate the beginning of equine domestication, which likely also marks the initial shift in the way that people thought about horses. One of the earliest public excoriations of horsemeat consumption came from the Vatican in 732, when Pope Gregory III issued a ban on the practice, hoping to distance the church from what it considered a pagan predilection. Even still, horsemeat remained a dietary staple in many parts of the world, especially Europe, with both France and Germany openly bucking the papal decree in the nineteenth century.

The church’s stance undoubtedly had a lasting impact on public perception, though, and likely accounts for at least some of the broad aversion in English-speaking countries like the US, England, Ireland, Australia, and some parts of Canada. Observant Jews are also unable to eat horsemeat because, as neither a ruminant nor a cloven-hoofed animal, it isn’t kosher. Psychologically, as horses assumed the familiar role of companions in battle and work, the idea of eating one must have become increasingly off-putting. And, although eaten by people of all classes throughout history, many cultures now associate horsemeat with penury—a last resort when beef and pork are unaffordable. The practice has never taken hold in America, but, up until 2007 when the nation’s last horse abattoir was shuttered in Illinois, thousands of horses were slaughtered and processed here annually for export.

ALL THE TASTY HORSES

So, who’s eating the equines? Figures from 2010 showed Mexico as the top producer of horsemeat for that year with 140,000 tons, followed by China (126,000 tons) and Kazakhstan (114,000 tons). Although horsemeat is still consumed in these countries, much of it is processed for export to Europe and Central Asia. In Japan, a popular horsemeat dish called basashi is served raw, sashimi style. In both Kazakhstan and South Korea, fat from the neck meat is prized for its flavor. Belgium, France, and Germany all have long and unapologetic roots in equine cuisine, and sauerbraten was originally prepared using horse. The meat is a staple in many Northern Italian and Sicilian preparations, and is incorporated into sausages and salamis, or served dried and shredded for a snack called sfilacci, which looks like a plate of deep red vermicelli. The Dutch and Swedish prefer it sliced thin for lunchmeat. South Americans generally shy away from eating it, but several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, all process the meat for export. Many Canadians feel the same way about horsemeat as Americans, but horse abattoirs still operate there and it’s very popular in Quebec, where you can find it in supermarkets, and other French-influenced regions.

As for taste, horsemeat is sweet and lean, but surprisingly, given its musculature, not very tough. It’s a red meat, with a taste somewhere between beef and venison, and connoisseurs are said to prefer it rare owing to how bloody the meat is, which imparts more flavor. One pound of horsemeat has fewer calories, half as much fat, a quarter less cholesterol and almost twice as much iron as a similar serving of 90/10 ground beef.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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