Tastes Like Pets: Horses, Llamas, and Burger King

Many of you are no doubt aware of the recent scandal involving horse meat found in Burger King hamburgers in the U.K.  It has been reported on in many media outlets, including NPR and the Guardian, and has resulted in Burger King dropping the supplier in question, an Irish company supplying meat from slaughterhouses in Poland.  If there were any lingering doubts about fast food as global industry, this should lay them to rest.

Despite the good nutritional quality of horse meat, the response has been outrage.  Apparently many who are willing to accept the industrial process for producing beef are not so generous if the meat comes from some other domesticated quadruped.  The reasons for this seem obvious to anthropologists, and were outlined long ago by Marshall Sahlins in his piece on the American taboo against eating dog meat.  He argues that the place of dogs as liminal, but very real, members of American households (a.k.a. “pets”) makes their consumption something akin to cannibalism, and thus subject to the same taboo.

Horses have a similar position as “pets” in our society, generally speaking.  While horses are not members of as many households, they are generally seen as upper-class pets, human companions, and beings with which humans have social relationships.  Thus they are seen by many Americans and Britons as off-limits as food.  (Of course, that cultural association is not universal by any means.)

This leads to some interesting situations.  When I was researching the consumption of llama meat in La Paz, Bolivia in 1993-1994, this topic was of great interest to people in the U.S.  I was asked, on many occasions,  whether llama meat tasted like horse meat.  This was a question I was never asked by Bolivians when telling them about my research, whether they had eaten llama or not.

I found this question odd, albeit telling, because those asking had invariably never tried either horse or llama meat.  So why ask if one food you haven’t tried tastes like another food you haven’t tried?  The association is entirely cultural.  Both animals are seen, by those in the U.S., as expensive four-legged pets.  Rather than asking the stereotypical question of whether llama tastes like chicken, the first thing that came to mind was the animal that fits into the same social relationship with people: the horse.

The unfortunate part is that I have never eaten horse meat (no objection to it, it’s just never come up) and so I have no idea whether llama tastes like horse or not.  I am forced to compare llama (favorably!) to beef and mutton.