The history of the American horse—in settling the west, heading into battle and serving as a companion and means of transportation—has made horse consumption a major cultural taboo.
Europe’s widening horse meat scandal, which has seen thousands of packages of beef products pulled from store shelves, suddenly stole the attention of U.S. audiences Monday when IKEA announced that a batch of Swedish meatballs tested positive for traces of equine DNA.
Though IKEA products in the U.S. come from North American suppliers and are considered safe, familiarity with the international furniture giant’s miniature meatballs was enough to stir up the mix of outrage and humor in the U.S. that has been reverberating throughout Western Europe for more than a month.
“Gross, these are in my freezer!” tweeted @lisagooder, an editor in New York.
Modern Seinfeld, a Twitter account devoted to imagining “Seinfeld” episodes around current events, used the opportunity to invent a scene in which character George Costanza complains to Jerry Seinfeld about the unfair advantage horses have over other animals that are routinely devoured without hesitation.
“Cow is fine but not horse? It’s animal racism, Jerry!"
In fact, the aversion to horse meat runs deep in the states, and attempts by daring chefs and restaurateurs to serve horse-based dishes have elicited passionate and even violent responses.
Last week, the owner of Monsu, a restaurant in Philadelphia, was threatened after announcing his plan to add horse meat to the menu.
“They called into the restaurant and said, ‘You guys start cooking horses, I am going to blow up your restaurant,’” Peter McAndrews told NBC10.com.
M. Wells Dinette, a New York eatery that has served everything from goat liver to beef tongue, pulled plans to serve horse tartare, which it had been touting, after animal rights advocates whipped up more than 1,000 signatures on a change.org petition.
The strong reactions, Food Museum co-founder Meredith Sayles said, come from the American perception of horses as something more than just animals.
“In the U.S. and U.K. horses are almost considered pets,” Sayles said. “And we don’t eat our pets.”
Unlike cows, which have long been used for food products ranging from milk to beef, horses have had more of a noble history in North America.
When Spaniards brought their horses to the Americas, Sayles said, they were quickly viewed by Native Americans as an important means of transportation. Since then, they have become even more ingrained in American culture through their beloved roles in literature and cinema.
Consider "Flicka," Sayles suggests, a 2006 movie about the relationship between a girl and a wild mustang.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on the subject of horse slaughter in the U.S. — another topic that has stirred up heated debate — noted that many advocates of reviving a federal ban cite the “horse’s iconic role in helping to settle the American West," its history on American farms and value as a recreational animal, in their objections to treating horses like just another beast.
Though the meat was once a common ingredient in dog food for its availability and attractive price tag, horse meat — even for pets — had fallen out of favor in the U.S. by the end of World War II.
“Some of it was that there were fewer horses, and some of it was animal rights,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, who writes the Food Politics blog. At the time, she pointed out, conditions at horse slaughterhouses "were pretty bad."
The ASPCA, which has been a vocal advocate for legislation that would prohibit the export of horses for slaughter, found that 80 percent of Americans opposed slaughter for human consumption.
"Anyone who has been to the movies lately knows the price horses have paid by carrying us to war, building our nation, and serving our entertainment and companionship needs,” wrote Nancy Perry, senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations. "Americans have a responsibility to protect these intelligent, sensitive animals from being butchered."
Many critics of the European horse meat crisis, on both sides of the Atlantic, have objected more vehemently to the mislabeling of meat products and the dangers of skirted regulations than they have to the idea of people eating horse.
But that's little indication the American public is ready to add one of its favorite animals to its diet.
“They’re pets, they’re companion animals," Nestle said. "People love them. I mean truly love them.”