With the recent fox meat scandal in China, Kate Conboy-Fischer examines why exactly some cultures find some meats so abhorrent

“In Heaven there is dragon meat, and on earth there is donkey meat”

The above is a saying in the Gansu province of China and its bordering regions. It is a phrase may seem bizarre and even comical to westerners, especially given the recent horse meat scandal.

Horse meat is taboo in most English-speaking countries or countries considered to have “western” ideologies. In stark contrast to this, China consumes the world’s largest amount of horse meat, recorded at 421,000 tonnes in 2005.

The examination of what makes certain foods seen as ethically wrong and just downright disgusting in some regions, or akin to the ambrosia of the gods in others, cannot be condensed into a single factor.  Rather it is a combination of various cultural and societal elements that most of us are unaware of and could now cause businesses, who illegally mix their products with these foodstuffs, millions of euros.

Investigations by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) resulted in Ireland being the first EU state to report the presence of horse meat in beef products and make public the results. The FSAI notified the five offending retailers, Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland, with their findings, all of them chose to withdraw the contaminated products.

The media and newspapers turned its focus to one particular burger that tested positive for 29% equine DNA. While some argue that it is the issue of the undeclared nature of the horse meat that makes these products so offensive to our sensibilities, the reality is that horse meat has never been considered clean and is almost as abhorrent to us as eating dog.

Horses in Ireland have a long history of companionship and are often presumed to have a level of intellect and sensitivity akin to dogs. This history makes eating either species unthinkable for Irish people.

One of the contributing factors to our disdain for eating horse meat is Ireland being inextricably associated to religion. Horse meat is considered unclean in certain sects of Christianity, namely Catholicism, and in 732AD, Pope Gregory III instructed Saint Boniface to suppress the pagan practice of eating horses, calling it a “filthy and abominable custom.”

Horses were revered in pagan religions where they were sacrificed and then eaten, so naturally Pope Gregory seeking to suppress all traces of paganism, made eating horse meat a shameful and disgusting practice. Astonishingly, since this decree, consuming horse meat is still considered an unthinkable choice of meal.

Considering the vice-like grip that Catholicism held over this country for centuries and how much influence still lingers it is perhaps hardly surprising, but the furore over the recent horse meat scandal was unprecedented and very telling of the ingrained conservative values people still hold.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailer, was forced to recall donkey meat sold at some outlets in China after tests showed the product contained the DNA of other animals, including, alarmingly, fox meat. If eating horse meat is repulsive to the Irish, then eating fox meat is equally so, and if fox meat was discovered in our Tesco value burgers, the damage caused to the Tesco brand would be irreversible.

Eating fox meat is not only ideologically repellent in Ireland, but considered vermin by Irish people, the equivalent of opening your happy meal to a rat meat burger. Wal-Mart will reimburse customers who bought the tainted Five Spice donkey meat and is helping local food and industry agencies to investigate its Chinese supplier.

The scandal could dent Wal-Mart’s reputation for quality in China’s $1 trillion food and grocery market where it plans to open 110 new stores in the next few years.

While food fraud isn’t anything new, it’s beginning to feel like our television screens have been filled with piles of suspicious looking meat from unappetising sounding companies with names like Comigel for an eternity.

What is new is the sheer volume of these stories coming to light in recent months.  Last May, Chinese authorities arrested nearly 1,000 people for “meat-related offenses,” including a gang that made millions of dollars passing off fox, mink and rat meat as more expensive lamb. Even more bizarrely, another group of suspects made fake beef and lamb jerky from duck.

Why are huge companies like Tesco and Wal-Mart risking their reputations for what may be substantial savings, but unbelievable risks? The simple and unpalatable truth is because they could.

No one knew that these burgers contained up to 100% horse meat until they were tested. The Chinese customer who discovered the fox meat, known only as “Mr Wang”, claimed to have tested the meat after it “looked, smelt and tasted funny.”

If it were not for his suspicion, this scandal may not have come to light, and this is so frightening to us that we were forced to overreact the way we did. There is also, arguably, a certain amount of culinary snobbishness and racism at play here.

The unspoken truth here seems to be that certain cultures hold their culinary traditions as superior to others, the Chinese have donkey and the Irish have beef. When either one is mixed with supposedly “inferior” meats each one is forced to face the fact that there are very few Mr Wang’s in this world.

Most people trust their food suppliers and unthinkingly accept what they are given, and with very little difference in taste or nutrition this snobbishness is down to societal norms and not flavour.