How 'healthy' horsemeat fell out of favour in the UK

Horsemeat sold in Harrow Road, London, 1953 Credit: Press Association

The discovery of horsemeat in burgers and packaged meals has raised a number of legal, ethical and health concerns, and the scandal of mislabelling the meat as beef continues to spread.

Horsemeat in the UK is not illegal, and any risk to health identified by authorities stems from the horse painkiller 'bute' making its way into the food chain. The health risk is described as "very low", however the social taboo of eating the meat is substantial.

More: Horsemeat containing bute 'very low health risk'

Horsemeat was once a very common sight on the British high street, and only fell out of favour around the 1930s as the public began to identify the animals more as companions and pets.

Pictures from archives of Westminster City Council show shops advertising the sale of horse meat "for human consumption" in Harrow Road, London in 1953.

David Ruse, director of libraries and archives at Westminster City Council said there were about 40 traders operating in the area, in the 1950s.

A butcher in 1996 advertising horsemeat in the Midlands. Credit: Press Association

Among many Europeans there is a long history of eating horse, especially in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.

It is also popular in Latin America: Mexico is the largest producer of horse meat, producing 78,000 tonnes in 2009.

In Japan you can eat horse sashimi, known as basashi, and it is popular in central Asia, where it has been part of nomadic people's culture for thousands of years.

In Mongolia, beef and mutton have become more popular, though in particularly cold winters many prefer horse meat as it is not kept frozen and traditionally people believe it helps warm them up.

Proponents of horsemeat say it is healthy alternate to beef, with much lower rates of fat, but still maintaining the high rates of proteins. According to research from the US, published in Nutrition Data, horsemeat is much healthier than other red meats:

  • Lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than beef or poke

  • Twice as much iron as beef

  • More than twice as much vitamin B12 as beef

  • Five times more healthy omega-3 fatty acids