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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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A Horse Is a Horse, of Course, of (Main) Course

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Let’s talk about horses. With news of Europe’s horse meat scandal grabbing headlines last month, it’s hard not to have equine on the mind. In 1875 Scientific American published an article, “Shall We Eat the Horse?” hypothesizing the economic benefits of consuming horse meat in the U.S. At the time hippophagy was practiced in Europe, especially in France where the Siege of Paris (1870–71) left citizens with a food shortage and the need to find nontraditional sources of meat. Whereas no such need was present in America, the magazine wondered what, if any, the impact would be on the economy, and whether or not we might actually be losing money by not serving up plates of “valuable” and “palatable” horse meat.

In France horseflesh sold for less than similar cuts of other meats, and the animal itself fetched $10 to $15 from the slaughterhouse. With this information, Scientific American proposed a horse in the U.S. would be worth $10 if sold to be slaughtered, with $3 allotted for alimentary purposes and the leftover $7 for the carcass. The carcass would be stripped into parts—hide, hoofs, hair—and sold for manufacturing.

The article estimated there to have been about 10 million horses in America at the time. If each had a $3 food value, an additional $30 million could be amassed from the sale of horses to slaughterhouses. A horse killed for food, however, could not be used for labor (their primary use at the time), thereby a financial loss would actually occur. But, the article wonders, what about horses that are not able to perform labor? It was estimated that yearly about one tenth of the horse population lost (or never had) labor value, and therefore utilizing these as food would create a $3-million increase in total profits. The article suggests farmers would save money by selling horses not used for labor to be used for food, as they would not have to spend to take care of these animals and would increase the income made off their slaughter. Further, by killing off unwanted horses sooner than later, there was a possibility of eventually strengthening the entire species.

Getting down to specifics, the 1875 article explains how a retired horse was used in France in order to show a possible model for America’s ponies. Each horse provided about 360 pounds of meat. The skin was sold to the tanner at $2.50; the hair, mane and tail sold at about 3 cents; hoofs were sold to toy- and comb-makers as well as sal ammoniac and Prussian blue (dye) producers. Tendons were sold to glue factories and bones—weighing in at about 90 pounds—fetched 60 cents. Fat went to soap-makers, perfumeries (it was turned into something called “bear’s grease,” which would be scented and sold to apothecaries), and to be used in oil lamps. Intestines, used as manure or in cat and dog food, were valued at about 5 cents apiece. By far, the strangest thing from the article, I found, was that the horse blood, once dried, weighed 20 pounds and was principally bought by sugar refineries Now, I’ve done some research, asked some horse experts, and still cannot figure out what a sugar refinery would need horse blood for. If anyone has an answer, please share! In summary, the article stresses that almost every part of the horse can be worth something, and adding “food source” to its long list of utilities would, in theory, increase economic profit.

In an article published 17 years later on May 7, 1892, Scientific American followed up with the progress of horseflesh consumption in Europe. It was still apparently very popular among the French “because this food agrees with their stomach as well as their purse.” Horse butcheries increased in number from 48 in 1874 to 132 in 1889, and horse meat still cost less than beef at about half the price. Consumption also increased in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland. Aside from the economic benefits, horse meat does provide more of certain nutrients than beef does. It contains less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, has twice as much iron, more than twice as much vitamin B12, and almost five times as much omega-3 than cow meat. In the same issue, Scientific American provided a further comparison of horses and cows beyond their nutritional values—just in case you were interested.

Cattle versus Horse

In 2005 the American Horse Council put out a report stating the U.S. horse population to be at about 9.2 million. This is slightly less than the 10 million accounted for in 1875, but a big difference is that in 2005 only about 1.7 million of the 9.2 million were involved in “labor” (that is, ranch work, carriage horses, police work, etcetera). If we use the model discussed in the 1875 article, this leaves a large number of horses who aren’t doing work to be eaten and profited from. But, considering how much attention and backlash the recent discovery of horse meat in beef products in Europe received in America, and the fact that the idea of eating horses causes most people here to grimace, it’s clear we are not ready to embrace this menu addition. Of course, a good deal of the recent outrage had to do with the fear of finding the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, which is harmful to humans, in horse meat sold as beef, but there’s definitely more to our reluctance. Horses that aren’t being used for labor in America are largely kept as pets or for recreational purposes, and eating companions is taboo to many. But, with a lot of us penny-pinching as it is, maybe we can look past this in order to take advantage of this low-cost and nutritional protein option? I, however, will be sticking to my own rule of never eating anything that wears a hat (image from Scientific American Supplement, August 9, 1902).

Hats made for horses at 1902 French Humane Society event

 

Bon appetite!

About the Author: Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are working to digitize all past issues of the magazine. Mary Karmelek is in charge of checking over each issue, and in the process she uncovers fascinating, captivating and humorous material buried in the yellowed pages of our past.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. gargoylefun 11:26 pm 03/8/2013

    Why no comment on the current push by a Roswell New Mexico company to start producing horse meat for public consumption? Since it is legal in the US to eat horse meat, this company has no obstacles to going forward with their plan.

    Link to this

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