The recent and ongoing story about horsemeat in the food-chain includes several examples of good and bad risk management.

  1. Horsemeat is not in itself harmful to human health.  It is eaten in France and elsewhere without causing a problem.
  2. However, traditionally, most British people prefer not to eat it.
  3. The reasons we do not eat horses in this country have nothing to do with food safety.  See below.
  4. Many horses in the UK are treated with a drug called “Bute” (Phenobutazole) which can be harmful to humans so it is banned in the EU except the UK as we do not eat horses anyway, and as we have a procedure where a horse-owner has to certify that the animal will not be used for human consumption before a vet can treat it with Bute.  So horses exported from the UK for meat should be free of Bute, even if their meat ends up back in Britain.
  5. It could be argued that its ban in the EU was an over-reaction, even allowing for the fact that horses are eaten in some EU countries, and that the UK approach is a more balanced way of managing the risk.
  6. Bute was originally developed by a drug company as a painkiller for humans but in the course of testing it, they found it sometimes had harmful side-effects on humans but was much safer for horses.  Therefore they stopped the trials for human use and never really established how harmful it was on what kinds of people or how its harmful effects could be mitigated, because the costs of further research did not seem justified.  This was especially true as there was such obvious potential for marketing it to and through the veterinary profession.  This seems to me a sensible way of managing the associated risks from the company’s point of view.
  7. Given that the drug was never found to be instantly fatal to humans, and that the amount of it in a horse is only small and confined to certain parts, it is unlikely that the amount in any portion of edible horsemeat could pose a significant threat to anyone eating it. But I would advise against eating more than one horse per day.
  8. In order to deal with other, more serious threats to human health, the UK Government has established strict rules controlling the trade in beef, such that it is possible to trace a steak back to the actual cow. It seems like very poor Risk Management if it is true that such controls can be readily bypassed for imported meat or even UK processed meat.  It is like having state-of-the-art security on your front door and leaving your back door unlocked!

You may be interested in the origins of the British tradition of not eating horses.

In early Christian times among the Anglo-Saxons, eating horsemeat was often suspected of being linked to a continuation of an ancient pagan practice, probably a survival from pre-Roman times, when people used to sacrifice chosen horses to one of their gods, Epona, and then eat the meat.  It was therefore banned by the Church.  The ban was not issued on the Continent because the problem does not seem to have existed there.

When William the Conqueror heard of this he re-issued the ban, so that eating horsemeat was breaking the King’s Law as well as the Church’s.  Many people then found that eating horsemeat really was bad for their health!

So the tradition was established and continues although the ban seems to have been lifted a long time ago.

Today, there are, more importantly, animal-welfare concerns, as it is believed that horses destined for human consumption are ill-treated prior to slaughter, and many of us would like to see that issue addressed before we would consider eating horsemeat.