Burger King Horse-Meat Scandal: Why the Outrage?

Burger King admitted this week that one of their suppliers has a horse meat problem. To a non-eater of cows, the ‘scandal’ looks bizarre: if you’re okay with eating a cow, why not a horse? The horse meat hubub highlights the elaborate unconscious mental gymnastics so many people routinely perform, in order to justify eating some animals but loving others. The story shines a harsh and unflattering light on our tendency to selectively check our empathy at the kitchen door (or barnyard gate), when it comes to eating animals.

Burger King acknowledged earlier this week that its Irish meat supplier, Silvercrest, apparently sold pig-and-horse containing ‘beef’ burgers all across the British Isles, over the course of (at least) the past year. Most of the horse-containing patties were found in grocery outlets supplied by Silvercrest.

Burger King also reported finding horse meat in patties they purchased from Silvercrest, but insists that none of the horse-and-cow burgers were sold in their UK restaurants. Burger King asserts that it’s stopped buying Silvercrest meat for its Britain and Ireland restaurants, as a “voluntary and precautionary measure.”

The scandal rocked the British food world this week, turning stomachs across the UK and raising the specter of massive Burger King boycotts.

The Guardian reported yesterday:

Thousands of consumers took to social media sites on 1 February to express their outrage at the news, with one Facebook user calling it “despicable”. The company was forced to take out a series of national newspaper advertisements in response, in which it apologised to customers…

The horse meat scandal will worry Burger King management, as a sustained period of customer revolt can damage revenue and profits – there are already signs on Facebook that US consumers are questioning domestic outlets following the UK scandal.

Though commonly eaten in some European countries, in the UK — as in the US — it’s a gross-out. NPR reported yesterday on the ongoing culinary scandal, conveying the outrage and disgust British shoppers feel at the idea of eating horses:

[One customer] who only gave his first name, Johnny, says he’s stopped buying beef burgers altogether.

“I’m not eating them any more! Poor old horses, I feel sorry for them, that’s all. France and all them countries eat the horsemeat — we don’t,” he said.

Horsemeat is commonly eaten in France and other parts of Europe and the world. But in the U.S. and United Kingdom, horses are more often seen as companions. Indeed, to the average animal-loving, horse-mad Brit, the concept of eating Mr. Ed is abhorrent and positively un-English.


Guys: cows and horses are really awfully similar! There exists no innate quality of Edibility, mysteriously present in one of these creatures but not the other.

The disgust people feel for horse meat, in cultures where horses aren’t considered ‘food animals,’ is completely appropriate and understandable; the puzzling thing is its rather glaring absence, when we talk about eating other hooved (or non-hooved) animals.

What’s the difference between eating cows and horses, between eating pigs and parrots? What’s the difference between eating chickens, fish, or turkeys and chowing down on dogs, cats, ferrets, or parakeets?


Clashing cultural narratives about animal edibility highlight the reality of the situation: we smooth make this s**t up! It’s simply our shared cultural fiction that cows are somehow ‘for’ eating, but horses are not. No substantial difference between the species excuses the former but condemns the latter — both actions represent optional and completely avoidable violence, in a food culture where we can easily feed ourselves without butchery.

Stories like this one offer valuable opportunities for self reflection: why do we choose to feel empathy for some creatures, but not others?

Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows offers insight into this strange state of affairs:

Our schemas have evolved out of a highly structured belief system. This system dictates which animals are edible, and it enables us to consume them by protecting us from feeling any emotional or psychological discomfort when doing so. The system teaches us to not feel. The most obvious feeling we lose is disgust, yet beneath our disgust lies an emotion much more integral to our sense of self: our empathy.

Reclaim It!

We can choose to respect our own intrinsic revulsion towards eating animals, reject dysfunctional cultural myths, and reclaim our empathy. As thoughtful and compassionate beings we can build new schemas of our own choosing, rather than blindly stumbling forward under the weight of capricious ideologies handed down to us.

Neither cows nor horses are ‘naturally‘ food animals. We make up narratives about relative edibility of different animals, in order to make ourselves feel better about what we’re doing. But the story that some are ‘edible’ and some aren’t is straight-up fiction; and we can choose to change that internal story at any time, to reflect our own values of compassion and nonviolence.

Optional deliberate violence deserves our disgust, revulsion, and outrage, in one case no more or less than another. Disgust at the thought of eating ‘inedible’ animals provide an opportunity to reconnect with our empathy — and an opportunity to step back from our cultural stories, look critically upon them, and recognize their foolishness.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by jchatoff.

6 thoughts on “Burger King Horse-Meat Scandal: Why the Outrage?”

  1. John L. Farthing

    The key issue here is our loss of the capacity for empathy with other sentient beings. For most of us, it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to eat the flesh of animals with whom we have developed some sort of personal relationship–calling them by name, looking into their eyes, exchanging gestures of affection. One close relationship with a dog or cat or horse is all it takes to render the thought of eating a dog or cat or horse repugnant—evoking a revulsion akin to what we feel when we think of cannibalism. Most modern urbanites have little or no contact with living cows or pigs or chickens or turkeys, and the meat-processing industry takes care to ensure that their slaughter takes place out of public view. Recent publicity about the marketing of horseflesh for human consumption, however, gives us a chance to get past the callousness toward the suffering other living creatures that is a prerequisite for meat-based dietary habits and economics. Ms. Sitton’s moving essay invites us all to get in touch with what our outrage over horseburgers at BurgerKing reveals about a deep moral intuition that the conditions of modern urban life make it all too easy to forget or ignore.

  2. GREAT article Tanya. I don’t understand the we-eat-cows-but-not-horses thing either; it’s really just a matter of convention and (questionable!) ethical standards. And, duh, they’ve been eating it for a year, and no one noticed. Sharing on FB… now!

    1. There are more and more of us about, calling attention to the weird way we justify our actions in the world of food… slowly but surely perhaps our society’s group consciousness is beginning a continental drift, towards a saner world view vis-a-vis other creatures. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  3. People are ridiculous. The outrage of people just reflects how little they ever think about where their food comes from. They think that a 50p burger is just something created out of thin air they do not think about the appalling quality of life these animals must have to allow the prices to be that low (along with the quantities of various bulking agents.) I dont see how people can refuse to buy quality meat and then be upset. I personally am not a vegetarian. Whilst my diet is largely veggie I do eat fish and chicken and do so occasionally to facilitate buying the best quality possible with the best standard of living. I would say my choices for this are due to the fact that I grew up on a farm and will eat what I would be prepared to kill, and as frequently as I would be prepared to do so. When people say they cant afford to buy quality meat i think it is bullshit, humans should not eat meat every week and the fact that they would be prepared to fund poor rearing and slaughtering practices so that they can eat meat every day is disgusting – whether that meat is horse, cow, pig, chicken or otherwise.

    1. Thanks for you thoughts on this; I would argue that HOWEVER they’re treated, killing in the absence of need is problematic, and no more so for one set of creatures than another. But there are vast stretches of common ground between us: the stipulation that IT MATTERS how we treat other living things is shared by many, and (more and more, it seems) reflected in consumers’ habits… Hopefully that trend will continue and intensify! Thanks for sharing. :)

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