Recent figures showing that the consumption of horsemeat in France has decreased hugely over the last two years have failed to pacify horse welfare organisations.
The consumption of horsemeat in France was down by 17% in 2002, and slumped a further 10% in 2003. There are less than 1,000 horse butchers in the country, falling from 1,300 such specialist outlets in 1999.
The decrease in horsemeat consumption in France is considered to be as a result of health concerns. Although many people turned to horsemeat during the BSE crisis in the late 90s, on the advice of a government veterinary committee, horsemeat is now banned from restaurants throughout the country.
But the Ethical Association of the Horse, a welfare organisation which has a range of mottos all enforcing the view that a horse ought not to be eaten, maintains that as many as 850 horses are still eaten each day in France (as many as 310,000 every year).
The association says that the status of the horse has changed and that he has become a companion rather than a slave.
“Since man has created a special bond with the horse, through sport and leisure, we should respect its entity.”
The association’s brief continues: “We ask those who do not have the immense privilege of having a horse as a companion to respect this extraordinary creature, noble by its excellence . . . which through the centuries has shared not only man’s work . . . but also his follies of war and even his fight for liberty.”
The history of the consumption of horsemeat has trodden a stony path in France. Originally forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, it was never entirely eliminated, and enjoyed a huge resurgence in the 19th century, when famine and poverty were rife, and it was officially legalised by the public authorities.
The nutritional value of the meat and the low cost quickly swayed public opinion, and by 1866 the first specialist horse butcher had appeared in the country’s capital.
Nowadays times are changing all over the world. The status of animals has changed significantly and celebrities everywhere are championing their cause. Animal welfare organisations in France are increasingly opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption, not least because of the conditions they endure being transported to the abattoirs and at the abattoirs themselves.
There was outrage recently, when the national stud in Annecy produced a “Bourgignon de poulain” – foal stew – at an open day lunch for 250 guests.
But many in the industry claim that the majority of heavy horses bred in France nowadays are intended for slaughter. Indeed, some maintain that if it weren’t for the horsemeat industry, many draught breeds would have disappeared altogether.
The Ethical Association of the Horse dismisses this claim, arguing that if anything, it would have contributed to the disappearance of lighter breeds in favour of fleshier animals. Above all, it stands by its motto, whatever the size of the horse.
“Non un Cheval, ça ne se mange pas” — A horse is not for eating.