Horse Meat: Good Enough for the Mafia and the Greatest Generation, But Not For Picky Non-Pagan Modern Consumers

For a couple years in the 1950s, the hamburgers many Chicagoans consumed were as much horse as cow—up to 40 percent. The Syndicate worked a rich arbitrage of cultural taboos, at least until they got caught and horse meat dominated the headlines for a year.

horse meat sashimi
Horse meat sashimi


Ireland and Poland are locked in an international incident. The intrigue? Horse meat. Ireland says Polish distributors shipped meat that ”showed up to 20 percent horse DNA content relative to beef, confirming the raw material from Poland to be the source of equine DNA content in certain burgers.” Poland says neigh. Burger King, well….

It’s entirely possible; it’s an old trick, reminding me of one of Chicago’s lesser-known but (at the time, at least) most damaging scandals. Chicagoans woke up on January 10, 1952 to find that their hamburgers were horseburgers:

Horse meat is fine. It’s probably healthier than the beef it was replacing. Up until Rod Blagojevich banned the practice in 2007, Illinois slaughtered horses and exported the meat, the last state to do so. But Americans (and a lot of people in the West) have a thing about not eating it. It probably has less to do with horses being cute or pretty or smart, at least originally, than the Church declaring that horsemeat is pagan:

Food avoidances and taboos have historically been based on religion, or have functioned to demonstrate social status differences between individuals and social groupings (18). Although Leviticus is silent on the specific issue of horse (19), in 723, Pope Gregory III indicated that the eating of horses was a ‘filthy and abominable custom’ in his instructions to Boniface, Bishop to the Germans (20). In Ireland, the Canones hibernenses, which date from the 7th century, impose an unusually harsh penance of 4 y on bread and water for the consumption of horsemeat (20). The explanation of this nonbiblically based Canon Law is that the consumption of horsemeat was associated with pre-Christian Celtic and Teutonic religious sacrifice (20,21). The church condemnation of horsemeat consumption was directed to suppressing pagan practices and distinguishing the Christian from the heathen (20,21).

Over the years, this evolved into a general aversion to horse meat… unless, of course, it was 1945 and not-horse meat of all kinds was running low, and people were buying horse meat to “feed to their dogs and cats.”

Seven years later, the Tribune broke the news of a massive state horse-meat racket. And it dominated the news for the next year. It pulled in the governor, Adlai Stevenson, who was accused of knowing about the scandal months before it broke (and who got the nickname “Horse Meat Adlai” from the Tribune editorial page); it led to multiple indictments and mass firings; and it was reported that it cost Syndicate head Tony Riccardo his job, though that doesn’t square with the historical record. The whole operation was run by the mafia—the horse meat racket was linked to the bombing ofa  Peter Pan restaurant at North and Harlem—who brought in a lot of money:

Boyle said his investigators have learned that the illicit horse meat dealers set aside a slush fund of 3 cents a pound sold in the Chicago area, this fund would have amounted to $750,000 for payments of bribes. (Chicago Tribune, 2/28/52)

The superintendent of foods and dairies for the state admitted to taking “more than $3,000 in bribes”; that’s about $26,000 in 2012 dollars. $750k translates to about $6.5 million dollars today for bribes alone. The arbitrage of cultural taboos is a rich vein, especially when cattle prices are going up 20 percent a year (PDF). And 4.5 million pounds of horse, sold at 45 cents less than the price per pound of beef, adds up to over two million dollars, or $17 million today.

But it wasn’t all bad news, from a certain perspective: hamburgers were likely leaner and higher in iron in Chicago for a couple years—until the news broke, and then hamburger sales instantly dropped 50 percent.


Photograph: jetalone (CC by 2.0)


1 year ago
Posted by RoseRunFarm

To the affluent, horsemeat is a luxury, bringing as high as $40/pound in Broward County because the people buying it believe it is higher in protein and has more nutrients than other meat," said Richard Cuoto, lead investigator in ongoing Florida horse-butchering crimes. "But, in fact, beef is cheaper, safer, and more nutritious. The bottom line is that these people are being poisoned by all the residual drugs they are consuming in meat from these butchered horses."
Horsemen know that nearly every equine medication, including dewormers, bears the warning: Do not use for horses intended for human consumption.
"Because of the drugs that are being pumped into these animals, it is a documented fact that horsemeat in the United States actually causes cancer," Cuoto said. "It also causes birth defects and numerous other illnesses. … Most people, it's making them sick—violently, stomach-flu type of sick—because of the drugs in it. We've heard reports of that. Really, these people are paying top dollar to make themselves sick."

1 year ago
Posted by Susanna Forrest

The short version of the history: humans eat horses when horses are abundant and cheap. That's just what's happening now. The recession has dropped the price of all horses through the floor, and so when you're making "value" burgers at 12p each, the substitution of horse for pricey beef is likely to happen.

It's an absolute myth that horse is a luxury meat in Europe.

And, as others have pointed out, it's not necessarily more healthy than beef as the odds of it containing carcinogenic bute are high.

1 year ago
Posted by sharksareamoungus

Ok so the meat seems safe-so if it was sooo very safe then why are all the US restrictions put into place, why do they not have horse meat farmers in the US? Well this is simple its the horse industries dirty little secret! The racehorses, and the old and infirmed, crippled horses go to be slaughtered is the tall tale the greedy killer buyers tell so we are more accepting of this terrible practice. So what's at stake? In the last 20 years horse drugs have evolved folks and the USDA, FDA, AND CDC have been paid off to coverup the amount of non consumable drugs are in our American horses, and then they make a technicality of shipping them overseas to make it appear like ohhhh they love it, yum! Well the racing industy is banned from slaughtering their drug filled animals for human consumption in many countries including Britian however, Americas racing community shovels them into to trailers by the boat load and they dont care who it affects the slaughter house doesnt state the horses were racing horses and clear bill of health is shipped over seas and they think it clean and clear. Also the backyard average horse owner annually gives, vaccines, dewormers, medications including bute, acapromazine (lethal in large doseages to anyone on the planet)banamine, and many antiinflammatories banned from slaughter animals, not to mention the illnesses that have crept into the industry in the past 20 years, look up the AQHA website at and they have an article about equine herpes. They dont test for anything but bute when they are processed. Tests cost money and they cant make money off of cheap meat unless they dont spend money protecting our lives. So when the industry includes show horses, race horses, barrel horses, rodeo, jumping, dressage, eventing, and tons of types of animals that all get some help to perform better whether legal or illegal drugs. Keep in mind they keep trying to say its taboo. In 1982 my grandfather stepped up to the killer buyers and stopped them from buying in the local indiana sale barn=he knew the race horses were riddled with drugs that could kill pets and animals. Folks wise up why do you think they BANNED federally banned horses in dog foods in the late 1970's because a news article I have states I quote the illegal and illicit as well as current mainstream healthcare products for horses:equine:equidae are dangerous and ultimately lethal to dogs, cats, and other small mammals. So the Federal ban has been placed to keep horse meat or any dirivetive, in part, portion, or slight trace to be unusable by Federal Law within the United States. Please folks-go to Change.Org and sign the Petition to Overturn The Legalization of the Slaughter of Horses in the US for Human Consumption. Please sign the one to save the wild burros as well.

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