I Know That Meatball: Two Issues That Matter More Than Horsemeat

I had no idea that the Swedish furniture company IKEA serves meatballs and sausages in its big box stores. But it does. IKEA announced this week that it would recall meatballs and sausages from its stores across Europe amid concerns that they might contain horsemeat. In doing so, IKEA became the latest retail giant involved in a scandal so complex that it reads like a political crime thriller. Only it's real.

If we take the scandal to heart, the lesson is a good one: when we buy processed food, we are not in control of what we put in our body. Period. As The Guardian reports in its "Horsemeat Scandal: The Essential Guide":

A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe....long supply chains enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest...networks of brokers, cold store operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants...supply rapidly fluctuating orders 'just in time.' Consultants estimate around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.

In other words, the scandal is the most recent example of what goes wrong when corporations, not farmers, control every aspect of our food supply. (I recommend Foodopoly by Wynonah Hauter, Director of Food and Water Watch, for a sobering discussion of our broken system.) In the case of horses, when they are bred in one country, killed in another, stored in a third and eaten in a fourth, of course things are going to go wrong.

Yet the conversations I'm hearing related to the scandal aren't so much about food production, a topic important not only to our health, but indeed to the very survival of the planet. Instead, they're largely about the ethics of eating horses. From where I sit, we're missing an important opportunity to discuss far bigger issues.

Mind you, I love horses. Mr. Red, my first "horse," was the size of a Great Dane; Santa tied him on the back porch one snowy Christmas long ago. There have been many horses in my life since that day: the racehorses my Dad bred and trained, the ponies with whom I began riding lessons and the thoroughbreds to whom I advanced; the 200 or more rescued by Catskill Animal Sanctuary since we opened our doors. Blind horses, outrageously funny horses, cranky horses, smart horses, not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer horses. Buddy. Sergeant Pepper. Tinkerbell. Maxx. Mr. Red. Ludwell. Casey. Friends and teachers, all of them.

Of all the horses CAS has rescued, how many would have wound up in an IKEA meatball, an Irish Whopper, or as glue, sausage casings and paintbrushes? A lot of them. How many of my childhood friends did? Some sobering statistics: of the 100,000 "at risk" horses sold at auction each year, the majority are bought by "kill buyers" -- people who buy horses cheaply at auction to resell them for profit to a slaughterhouse. But here's the truth: I love cows, too. Of the thirty or so rescued by Catskill Animal Sanctuary (we can't take in as many cows as horses, since sadly, no one adopts them), how many would have wound up in an IKEA meatball, an Irish Whopper, a frozen TV dinner, a rump roast, a t-bone steak or a hamburger? All of them. But there's no furor about this.

When he was dying, the gentle steer Samson licked my face over and over until he took his final breath. A dozen people witnessed this. When I go to the pasture to visit a resting Amos, the longhorn steer whose great horns point skyward, I drape my body over his back and wrap my arms around his neck. He, too, responds with kisses. Though I haven't indulged him in a while, one of Tucker the steer's favorite activities is bath time: he loves getting lathered up, scrubbed and rinsed, and often chews my shirt or other part of my body while I bathe him. Blind cows (yep), outrageously funny cows, cranky cows, smart cows, not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer cows. Babe. Rosebud. Emerson. Molly. Mama Sherman. Russell. Sammy. Friends and teachers, all of them. The possibility of turning one of them into food for humans is no less untenable than contemplating turning Buddy the blind horse into food. The idea of turning any animal into food for humans is untenable for many reasons, but especially because I know that there is little meaningful difference between animal species. In ways that truly matter -- individuality, the richness of our emotional lives, the bonds we form, the fact that pain and suffering feel the same regardless of species -- we are all the same.

While IKEA says that there's no horsemeat in the meatballs sold in their American stores, USDA officials acknowledge that species testing for imported meat happens only when there's a reason to question a shipment. The truth is that we don't know if there's horse in the meatballs you ate on your last shopping trip because we haven't tested them. We do know that there is cow meat in them.

The term carnism refers to what Melanie Joy describes as the invisible belief system that justifies the eating of certain animals while making the eating of others feel morally repugnant. In addition to our broken food production system -- a system that tortures animals and poisons people and the planet on which we all depend, I hope the scandal about horses in Whoppers and meatballs encourages a real dialogue about this knotty issue. The USDA reports that today, 483 American horses, 7,247 cows, 315,507 pigs, and 23,300,000 chickens will be slaughtered. All of them will become our food. And no matter whether you, for cultural reasons, feel differently about eating horses than you do about eating all the rest, the fact is that slaughter, and all the horror leading up to it, feels just the same to a cow, a chicken or a pig as it does to a horse.

Let's talk about food production: its assault on animals, on human health and on the planet.Let's talk about carnism. And let's go vegan.