Food & Drink

How to Know If You’re Eating Horse Meat


How to Know If You’re Eating Horse Meat

Photograph by Paula Thomas/Getty Images

Staid eaters, the kosher, and equestrians should heed the following guidelines during their continental tours: Limit your intake of frozen lasagna, resist Ikea’s Köttbullar, and maybe go for a butty instead of a burger when you hit the U.K. Actually, any euro tourists who feel a little squeamish over cheval might want to stick to fish, at least until testing labs inundated with samples get through their backlogs.

Meat-testing labs, contracted by food-processing companies that can’t wait around for someone to choke on a shard of hoof, check for horse meat contamination by looking for either horse proteins or horse DNA. In the protein-based method, the labs add suspect meat to a solution containing horse-specific antibodies; if there’s at least 1 percent to 2 percent horse protein in there, it will stick to the antibodies, and the test will come up positive.

The second, more sensitive method involves using the “DNA photocopier”: Add short lengths of horse DNA to your sample; heat the mixture to unzip the DNA; let any horse DNA in your sample stick to the DNA you added; add enzymes to get the new horsey codes to replicate themselves; and, if you end up with a bunch more horse DNA than when you started: time to fire your supplier.

Short a thermocycler? Your palate isn’t so discerning, as many unwitting European carnivores have discovered. There’s a consensus that horse meat is softer, sweeter, leaner, and even milder than beef. “If you told me I was eating a leaner cut of steak, I’d have believed you,” says Bloomberg food critic Ryan Sutton, who described barbecued Russian horse meat as “reasonably tough, with no particularly gamey flavors.” So maybe live a little and do as the Romans do. Literally: The cavallo-gorging Italians accounted for half of the 200,000 horses slaughtered in the European Union in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available.

If you’re really that spooked, just eat close to home. Horse slaughter has been effectively outlawed in the U.S. since nobody will fund the mandatory slaughterhouse inspections, and we don’t import anything from the meat processors involved in this scandal. So America is safe from any unintentional horse burgers, and has been for a while. Well, there was that one time more than 30 years ago when Australia may have shipped us a bunch of kangaroo and horse meat, but that’s all blood under the bridge. Bon appétit!

Applegate is a graphics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York. Follow him on Twitter @evanapplegate.

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