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LONDON--In Britain, a horse is a horse--not a main course.
Tesco, the country's biggest supermarket chain, took out full-page newspaper ads Thursday to apologize for an unwanted ingredient in some of its hamburgers: horsemeat.
Ten-million burgers have been taken off shop shelves after the revelation that beef products from three companies in Ireland and Britain contained horse DNA. Most had only small traces, but one burger of a brand sold by Tesco had meat content that was 29 percent horse. The contrite grocer told customers that "we and our supplier have let you down and we apologize."
Reaction to the scandal in Britain goes beyond concerns about contaminated food. While people in some countries happily dine on equine flesh, in the land of Black Beauty and "National Velvet," the idea fills many with horror.
BRITAIN SAYS NEIGH
Mary Creagh, environment spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, reflected the feelings of many when she said Thursday that eating horsemeat is "strongly culturally taboo in the United Kingdom."
She was echoing prohibitions in Western cultures that go back to 732 A.D., when Pope Gregory III declared horse-eating a pagan practice.
Horsemeat has never been a staple of European diets, but from the mid-19th century it was eaten in countries including Britain as cheap filler food for the poor.
"It tended to be in burgers and potted meats and sausages as cheap supplementary food," said culinary historian Annie Gray. "And it wasn't always labeled, just as we're finding out at the moment."
The sale of horsemeat in the U.K. continued through the 1930s Depression and World War II, when many foods were rationed.
But hippophagy--eating horses--never really caught on in Britain, a land of horse lovers and beef eaters.
"The eating of beef is totally symbolic of being English," Gray said--so horse was always going to be seen as a poor substitute.
The handful of hardy entrepreneurs who sell horsemeat in Britain say the scandal has--paradoxically--been good for business, raising the profile of a meat few had considered.
"We've been very busy the last couple of days," said Paul Webb, director of Exotic Meats, a company in the English Midlands that sells horse burgers, sausages and steaks alongside cuts of crocodile, kangaroo and impala.
He says typical horsemeat buyers are "middle-aged, middle-class people who want to try something different."