There's been a lot of talk about it in the media of late, and for good reason - horse meat has somehow found its way into processed meat products, and people have been unknowingly been eating it for months.
In the general furore that's sprung forth from the discovery of horse meat in the food chain, there's something that's not particularly been touched on: all moral and cultural objections aside, is horse meat any good for you?
Horse meat is eaten in numerous countries throughout the world, being considered a delicacy on various European and Asian dinner tables.
Horse is classified as a red meat, the same category to which pork and beef belong. For the purposes of comparison to meats we're more familiar with, let's look at the nutritional composition of horse vs. both beef and pork.
|Per 100g raw product, various cuts|
Horse meat contains similar levels of protein to both beef and pork, and is considerably lower in both total and saturated fats.
For people watching their fat intake for the purposes of weight maintenance/weight loss, for concern over cardiovascular disease, or for any other reason, a lean meat such as horse actually makes a healthy choice.
Horse meat contains significantly higher levels of iron than either beef (nearly double) or pork (nearly five times as much). Iron deficiency is a common problem, particularly in women of child-bearing age, and can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. Sufferers of which are troubled by symptoms of tiredness, fatigue, breathlessness and pallor (pale complexion). Sufficient dietary intake of iron can be difficult to achieve, and people are advised to eat foods rich in iron to ensure they meet their requirements. Horse clearly tops the table with the three red meats considered here, but other options include offal, fortified breakfast cereals (check the nutrition label!) and dark green leafy vegetables.
Athletes are often recommended to eat high quality sources of protein, minimise excess fat (being active doesn't completely guard against all diet-related diseases!), and have adequate nutrients to support their bodies in coping with the demands their training places on it. Iron deficiency can be debilitating to an athlete, so it is essential that they consume sufficient iron to prevent he onset of a deficiency. Horse meat - high in protein and iron, and low in fat, fits quite nicely into this description. Something to think about.
Looking beyond nutrition, there has been a well publicised concern over unregulated meat in our food - the issue of drug contamination.
Bute (also known as phenylbutazone) is a painkiller. It belongs to the family of drugs known as non steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs, he same group as ibuprofen). It is commonly used in horses and dogs, for the purposes of treating pain and reducing fevers. It was once commonly used in humans, and remains a prescribable drug for human use. It is not frequently used however due to serious side effects - the drug is known to cause damage to the blood, and can lead to bone marrow failure. Whilst rare, this serious side effect was enough for the drug to be withdrawn from common use - it is now only prescribed under close supervision and where all other options have failed.
So clearly there is cause for concern if bute has contaminated the human food chain.
But - and it's quite a big but - based on the results of testing carried out by the Foods Standards Agency, you would have to eat a rather large quantity of horse meat in order to consume the lowest known dose to cause an adverse reaction in a human.
These are the figures:
The lowest known dose of bute to cause an adverse reaction in a human is 200mg of phenylbutazone, administered as a single dose.
Of the sources tested thus far, the highest level of bute found in a horse carcass is 1.9mg per kg of weight.
Taking the lowest dose - 200mg - as a baseline, you'd have to consumed 105kg of horse meat to take in 200mg of bute.
And that would be an awful lot of burgers. About 920 quarter pounders in fact.
So is eating horse meat something to be worried about?
From a nutritional point of view, no. Horse meat is lean, high in protein and provides a useful source of iron and calcium.
From a pharmaceutically contaminated point of view, perhaps. But where bute is concerned, probably not.
As for ethically and morally... well, the choice is yours.