By Erica Meier

Headlines around the world have blared the scandal: Unwitting Britons who dined on hamburgers, meatballs, or other beef products were actually eating horse meat - and they're outraged. In fact, recent polls show that 20 percent of U.K. consumers are now eating less meat and 7 percent are saying "neigh" to meat altogether.

In Philadelphia, the news seems to have had the opposite effect: At least one restaurant says it plans to add horse meat to its menu.

The scandal raises many uncomfortable questions. The detection of horse DNA in beef products, at a minimum, offers an alarming reminder about the lack of transparency and oversight in our food production systems. It also raises the question: Why are we so comfortable eating cows, but appalled by the thought of eating horses?

Cows and horses, after all, have much in common - they're both highly social mammals that have individual personalities and form strong friendships with others. They're both fully capable of experiencing joy, sorrow, and pain.

The situation is even odder when we consider that most cows - and other farmed animals - are typically treated far worse than most horses. Though their suffering is kept hidden away behind the closed doors of factory farms, animals raised for food are routinely treated as meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines. The overwhelming majority of chickens, pigs, and turkeys, for example, spend nearly their entire lives crammed inside massive warehouses. Hundreds of millions of them are locked away inside tiny cages or crates, barely able to move.

Sure, racing horses may be given drugs that could leave residues in their meat, but nearly all farm animals are routinely dosed with growth-promoting antibiotics that can also leave residues. Perhaps more importantly, the practice of pumping livestock full of non-therapeutic antibiotics is causing a major rise in the emergence of superbugs impervious to our strongest drugs - not to mention the growth hormones administered to many of the animals we routinely eat.

It's certainly true that humans and horses have a long history together, but does that make them so different from cows? It seems more likely that the difference between horses and cattle is more a product of our own psychology than of the animals' biology.

But just as Americans are repulsed by the idea of eating Fido or Secretariat, a growing number are starting to broaden their circle of compassion to other animals. Recognizing that we don't have to send animals to slaughter plants in order for us to live (in fact, vegetarians have lower rates of numerous ailments), a growing movement is calling on us to "live and let live" when it comes to not only horses, but chickens, pigs, and cattle, too.

Given all that we know about animals, whether from science or personal experience, how can we justify eating cows (or chickens or pigs) but not horses?

The most logical and ethical response to these uncomfortable questions is to realize that we can create a more rational relationship with our fellow creatures by leaving them off our plates altogether. Then we wouldn't have to worry about these "night-mare-ish" scandals.

As Franz Kafka, an avowed vegetarian, famously noted about animals: "Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore."