When is a story not a story? When it becomes a scandal.
The dictionary definition of a scandal is “A publicised incident that brings about disgrace or offends the moral sensibilities of society”
At what point an incident becomes a ‘scandal’ seems rather indefinite. Perhaps it’s the number of times it makes the headlines, or just how serious an impact it has on people’s lives. Sometimes it’s just that the epithet is arbitrarily added to something to make it more newsworthy. It can of course just be a lot of fuss about something everyone knew was happening anyway, but chose to ignore until they’re unavoidable.
One thing’s for sure. Scandals wake us up, press the reset button, make us stop and think.
So it is with The Horsemeat Scandal. A story that seems to be running and running in the UK right now. Cue the inevitable joke about the 3.30 at Heydock Park or perhaps the 2 ‘o’clock at Newbury which I’m not going to make. Except I just did.
For anyone that doesn’t already know the background, the revelation that some processed beef products on sale in the UK and Ireland contained things other than cow came after The Food Safety Authority of Ireland carried out a targeted study. Certain percentages of horse and pig DNA were initially found in Tesco value burgers and in some meals sold though some fast food chains. As the testing continued, a growing number of other products were found to contain alarming amounts of equine tissue, culminating a few days ago with the discovery that Findus Beef Lasagne had in fact been made with 100% geegee for at least the past 6 months.
Since then we’ve been treated to a seemingly daily diet of meaty exposes covering everything from pig DNA found in halal meals served to prison inmates, to the even more delicious fact that the man behind the Findus label is apparently a keen polo player and horse lover. It doesn’t say how he likes them cooked though.
Aside from the understandable plethora of horsey related jokes and parody pack shots, I have to admit I’ve found it all increasingly amusing. Not that I’m happy to hear that yet another animal has entered the factory food chain, but I can’t help cracking a wry smile at the copious hand wringing and open mouthed shock that has resulted from people finding out that the mashed up dead flesh they were eating was actually from a different carcass to the one they thought. Just what difference it makes seems to be a question that’s left hanging in the air.
Reasons to be fearful
The first excuse for carnivorous hypocrisy seems to centre around the food safety argument. The fact that the companies that supplied one kind of meat when they said it was another doesn’t exactly fill you full of confidence that they give a toss about what else is in it as they pull the wool/yak pelt/dog skin over the unsuspecting consumer’s eyes.
Today we hear that much of the dodgy meat came via a tortuous supply line made up of disparate companies leading back to parts of eastern Europe not exactly renowned for their care and sensitivity over human or animal rights. In some ways though there’s a brutal honesty in that. The understanding that if people are prepared to eat the remains of an over-exploited, abused animal, they probably can’t afford to be choosy about which bit of moral high ground they set up camp on.
To be fair, there’s also genuine concern over the fact that many of these horses were probably sick and/or dead at the time they entered the food chain. Indeed I’ve heard stories ago about unscrupulous horse dealers buying animals from owners who believed they were being sent to sanctuaries, rather than a backstreet abattoir.
Although that’s yet to be verified, there’s documentary evidence of 70,000 sick and crippled horses being illegally shipped out of Ireland, destined for tables in Europe. Not only is that an animal welfare disaster, the concern is that if these were indeed old and unwell nags, there is a chance that their flesh could be laced with drugs not licensed to enter the human food chain, the most worrying of these being the potentially carcinogenic drug Phenylbutazone.
However, as people fight back barely controlled hysterical nausea about drugs in the food that they wolf down with reckless abandon, they seem happy to ignore warnings that have been around for decades about the concoctions and chemicals found in your average slab of beef, chicken, pork or sheep.
One of the biggest dangers is the routine application of prophylactic anti-biotics to animals destined for the dinner table. A common practice for many years, this is done for a number of reasons, only some of them to do with the animal’s general health. While the prime motivation is to reduce the chances of the animal getting sick, one necessity for this treatment is the crowded living conditions of many animals in the intensive meat and dairy industry. The second, even less palatable reason is the fact that these drugs increase body mass and yield. In the USA for example, the meat and dairy industry now consumes a staggering 80% of all anti-biotics produced. This has already been shown to produce resistant strains of bacteria in the animals themselves and the likelihood of this being passed on to anyone eating them is thought to be more than likely.
Other drugs and chemicals that have been found in meat and dairy products over the years include everything from meat tenderisers injected into animals shortly before slaughter, artificially introduced hormones used to increase milk yields, various extenders and fillers, right down to naturally occurring hormones in milk and stress hormones released by animals about to be killed. In that context the idea that a small trace amount of a drug, may be in a meal you may have eaten seems a little over cautious to me.
In some respects the consumption of horse meat could be seen as a positive health food in comparison to some of the substances that pass for meat on the supermarket shelves and fast food counters these days. Burger King frantically took out a full page newspaper adverts apologising for the use of horse meat in some of its products, yet the now infamous ‘pink slime’ was once a staple of several high street burger chains in the USA.
Mechanically recovered meat or MRM has been outed by many a TV expose as a barely edible slop, in my opinion unworthy to be flushed down the nearest public sewer. Yet it, and other prosaically named products such as beef trim (scraps left after the main cuts are taken) and ‘lean finely textured beef’ or LFTB (connective tissue, sinews, digestive tract) continues to be a source of cheap meat filler in many products. Just check the ingredients list in certain ‘value’ meals next time you’re shopping.
Makes a slice of diseased shire horse sound like fine dining doesn’t it?
Not that we should scoff at scoffing these products, as they are making the best use of all the parts of an animal that was slaughtered to provide them. But as the pressure mounts to provide meat at a fixed cost for inclusion in low priced ready meals, it’s little wonder that suppliers pushed to the limit will use any material that they can pass off as meat to fulfil these demands. How much of a leap is it from describing an eyelid or sinew as ‘lean beef’ to throwing a horse or pig, or whatever else happens to be scuttling by, into the mincer?
We’re safe in the EU/UK though right?
Yes of course we in the EU and UK may have better standards of food manufacture and supply than those nasty US food conglomerates, but let’s not forget that most food manufacturers are global these days, and many of them are based in The States anyway.
Big food companies get away with what they can, driven by their need for profit and the consumer’s demand for cheap meat. It’s a not-very-virtuous circle that’s never going to be broken while these companies enjoy the huge lobbying power they currently wield. Findus for example allegedly knew a week before they announced it that their lasagne contained 100% horse. Were they keeping the bad news from us for our own good do you think?
The other way most of this can be avoided to some extent is by eating only organic meat but that’s probably not an option if you’re in the position where financial constraints force you to the discount end of the meat trade for your principal source of affordable protein.
The other option of course would be a vegan diet, something which would also keep you out of harm’s way when the next processed food revelation hits the headlines in a few months. It may also be cheaper in the long run that relying on meat. Maybe you think that’s an extreme reaction. Perhaps eating food with ingredients you have no knowledge of, or control over, is a moderate course of action in the circumstances.
Telling porky pies
Another source of indignation is that all this passing off of dobbin-burgers is a gross misrepresentation or food fraud. This presumably runs along the idea that if Findus had labelled their beef lasagne as horse lasagne we’d not be too put out. This again sidesteps the fact that if all manufacturers listed all the contents of the processed food that they produce they’d probably need very much larger packets.
The fact is though that most food manufacturers do everything they can to avoid telling you what’s really in their products. As the horse meat fiasco highlights very clearly, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.
Horses are our friends
I think if most people were honest about their misgivings, it’s the idea that they’ve been eating Black Beauty or My Little Pony that’s really twisting their stomachs. One comment at the time the story first broke called on us as a nation of animal lovers to consider the horse in a different light to other food animals. This seemed predicated on the idea that it had been present in many armed conflicts and had been the dream companion pet of many a pre-pubescent young girl.
Victoria Spicer, editor of Horse & Country TV probably summed up what she saw as the national mood on the subject very concisely
“..The idea is revolting to the majority of horse lovers [..] For many horse owners, eating horsemeat is as repulsive a concept as eating cat or dog – I for one would never knowingly eat horse, and yet it seems that this may have inadvertently been the case. As a nation of animal lovers, we must ensure that this sort of mistreatment in slaughterhouses never happens again…The horse has been an integral part of Britain’s history and culture, and we owe our equine friends much more than this.”
The fact that ‘traditional’ food animals had been giving up their lives, freedoms and comforts to keep the rest of us alive for millennia seems to be par for the course for Vicky. Also the knowledge that the fate of many horses in the racing and horse breeding fraternity is not exactly assured has apparently not made a dent on her self assurance, or on her ordered views on which animals should be treated as “freinds” and presumably which we can ignore as walking fast food.
So as a non meat eater I find the whole Horesgate saga quite a bit more fascinating than I probably should. Not that I’m feeling at all smug about not really being touched by the whole thing. I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be some way that the bought-in products that I eat can’t be adulterated by a supplier out to make a quick buck. But there are very few ways that you can mess with a fresh carrot, especially if you grow it yourself.
No, what I find bemusing about the current furore is the fact that people who eat meat are having to re-evaluate their hitherto matter of fact relationship with cheap meat. Not only have they found that they can’t be assured that what they put into their mouths and stomachs is exactly what they thought it was, they now have to consider why that makes a difference.
Perhaps they may even look at a horse and a cow and begin to see the light of realisation dawning in the far distance. Or maybe they’ll just put it down to another passing scandal and assume everything will be all right again in the future. Just like it was after BSE in cattle, Salmonella in eggs, Swine flu, Dioxins and GMOs.
Place your bets
This blasé attitude may well be best epitomised by the betting chain Paddy Power, who are currently running a book on which random animal may be found to have contributed to the national diet next. Apparently unicorns at 2000 to one. I wonder what odds they’ll give me on snake or reptile DNA in chicken or pork dishes. After all everything supposedly tastes of chicken doesn’t it?
Come to that I seriously wonder if the FSA are already secretly testing for human DNA in some of these products.
If they found it, would they tell us?
Perhaps a question Richard Fleischer already posed in his seminal movie Soylent Green.
Where’s Charlton Heston when we need him most?