If you haven’t heard by now, there’s an ongoing problem in the UK and continental Europe where food products labeled as containing beef actually turn out to have surprise horse meat in them. If history had played out a little differently, this wouldn’t be a scandal, and Brits eating horse meat would be about as newsworthy as Americans eating cheeseburgers.
In the mid-1800s, a guy named Algernon Sidney Bicknell started a group called the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food. The name should leave little doubt as to what their goal was. In 1868, Bicknell and the Society hosted a banquet at a London hotel where 150 guests were served horse soups, horse sausages, horse steaks, horse roasts, and almost anything else the cooks could think to make from horse. Not long after that, Bicknell released his manifesto, Hippophagy: the Horse as Food for Man, and outlined what he saw as horse meat’s economic, cultural, nutritional and gastronomical benefits.
Bicknell and his horse sausages probably couldn’t have come on to the scene at a more perfect time. According to historian Chris Otter, in a paper on Bicknell’s “dietary revolution,” England was in the throes of a meat famine. Demand was rising, and so were prices, but the domestic supply couldn’t keep up and the international supply chains were weakened by breakouts of livestock disease in mainland Europe, and primitive refrigeration technology. If you wanted meat, Bicknell reasoned, horse was about to become the best, and maybe only, game in town.
Still, Bicknell’s crusade pretty much crashed and burned. Butchers didn’t get on board with selling horse and the people didn’t get on board with eating it. Across the English Channel, though, things shook out a little differently.
Just a few years before Bicknell’s banquet, an old ban on consuming horse meat was lifted in France, and French scientists started their own hippophagy movement. The anatomist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and veterinarian Emile Decroix made many arguments for horse consumption that echoed Bicknell: horse meat was healthy and French meat consumption was too low, it was moral to not let animals die in vain and economically sound to use what meat was available.
Their arguments began getting press in the country’s science and medical journals and then in the mainstream newspapers, gaining support among social reformers as a cheap way of feeding France’s urban poor. With all the attention, backlash soon followed. Some Catholics objected based on a religious taboo and an old Papal decree against horse consumption. Others made the “slippery slope” argument that if horse meat caught on, the French would soon be eating dogs, rats, and any other animal they could get their hands on.
Despite the opposition, the sale of horse meat was legalized by the summer of 1866 and a horse meat stall was authorized in a Paris market. Within a few years, there were 23 horse butcher shops in the city alone, and business was brisk. In 1874, the economist Armand Husson suggested that this horse meat boom relied on a few factors: the high price of other meats, the falling threshold of disgust with horse and the support of scientific expertise.
Back in Britain...
Bicknell had some of that going for him in England—he touted horse meat’s cost effectiveness, and backed up his nutritional claims with scientific evidence—but just couldn’t gain a foothold. Decroix even offered 1100 francs and a medal to whoever could open the first horse butchery stall in London, and the prize was never claimed. Just a decade later, all the effort would be unnecessary. The birth of refrigerated ships made it easier to import “regular” meats to the British Isles, and turning to horses no longer had to be contemplated.
Why did Bicknell fail where the French hippophagists succeeded, sending the two countries on diverging dietary paths? Both the British and French had religious/cultural objections to eating horse, and in both countries the horse had a central role in the agrarian and early industrial economy as a source of transportation and power, worth more in the field than on a plate. The difference, Otter argues, was that France’s scientific and medical elite and its adventurous butchers and chefs supported horse meat and convinced the public to make it part of their diet.
These factors, he writes, made horsemeat “available and tolerable, which consequently altered equine economics, making the sale of old horses for meat more profitable…relatively tight links between scientific expertise, butchery and popular taste allowed hippophagy to gain economic and cultural momentum in France, meaning that the taboo on horsemeat was partially shattered.”
The British hippophagy movement didn’t enjoy the same high-profile support from laboratories and kitchens, and Bicknell and his Society alone weren’t enough to turn the average diner on to horse, even if they made the same case that the French did. Otter also suggests some “dietary nationalism” was involved too. The British might have rejected hippophagy, in part, because the French (historically, not their best pals) embraced it.