Sometimes, news stories are a bit like forest fires. You know how it is. You’re walking through the woods, enjoying a cigarette, you drop your cigarette to the ground and stub it out with your toe, and walk on. A few steps on, however, you look back to check, and you see a twist of smoke twirling up from the twig and leaf litter. So you nip back and grind that cigarette end properly into the ground, make sure it’s out. And you carry on your way.
And a few minutes later you notice that all the trees are burning.
The horsemeat story has been a bit like that. In the middle of January the Irish Food Standards Agency announced that beefburgers containing traces of equine DNA had been supplied to a number of supermarkets.
Cue the removal of some ten million burgers from the shelves of supermarkets such as Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland. Also cue ten million gags, of varying quality, on Twitter and Facebook. The gags on Twitter were better.
Over the next few days, various supermarkets withdrew some frozen products as a precautionary measure, and at the end of January the Irish authorities said they believed that ‘filler’ contaminated with horse products had been used in burgers and had come from Poland.
‘Filler,’ as I understand it in this context, is a kind of powder product used to bulk up meat, a bit like the equally mysterious ‘rusk.’ The idea that this powder could be contaminated with horse DNA was a bit disconcerting, but it was only traces and it was only powder and the story seemed to, if not disappear, at least to subside.
And then the FSA announced on February 7 that some Findus beef lasagnes contained up to 100% horsemeat, and all the trees were suddenly on fire.
One of the most enduring comments I’ve seen on Twitter over the past couple of weeks is ‘So what? It’s only horse. What’s wrong with eating horse?’
Which is a fair point as far as it goes, I suppose. I’ve eaten horsemeat and it was okay. However, the larger issue is that a supply chain exists which brings beef from the farmer to our tables, and quantities of horsemeat have been dumped into that chain at some point. If it can happen with horsemeat, why not squirrel? Badger? People? (You laugh, but why not? This is a criminal enterprise, after all.)
I suppose one of the things we’ve learned during the past couple of months is just how extended the supermarket supply chain is. Meat is, apparently, washing back and forth across Europe, from supplier to supplier and processor to processor. There are so many links in the chain that it’s been hard to pinpoint exactly where the horsemeat joined. Fingers have been pointed at Romania, at Holland – where the phrase ‘Dutch Meat Dealer’ must surely be one of the coinages of the year – at Ireland. Slaughterhouses have been raided, arrests made. The Guardian investigated what seem to be links between the meat trade and the arms trade. And why not? If the infrastructure’s there, why not use it?
I suppose it’s stating the obvious to say that the eating habits of Britain have undergone something of a change over the past few decades. I’m old enough to remember when ‘convenience food’ was a tin of beans. When I was young, burgers and ready-made dishes were treats, something a little exotic. Down the years, they became the norm. A couple of shepherd’s pies in the freezer were an easy option if we had nothing fresh or were just too tired or harrassed to cook properly. Also they were cheap.
Cheap is good. Particularly at the moment. ‘Value’ meals and portions are important to families struggling to make ends meet; a pack of ‘value’ burgers for a couple of quid can feed a family of three or four more cheaply than, say, a roast chicken for upwards of five pounds. They’re quick and convenient, and we’re used to them.
I’ve seen a lot of Blame over the past few weeks, and that’s no great surprise. We always look for someone to blame when things go wrong. I heard a report on the news that industry figures had said that if consumers wanted the safety of their food guaranteed they would have to expect to pay more for it in future. The subtext being, I guess, ‘You wanted cheap food; now look what you’ve done.’
Another expert has blamed changes in the European definition of what ‘meat’ is.
The Chairman of Iceland blamed local authority catering services for using cut-price suppliers.
And so on and etc.
The truth is, someone, somewhere, had access to large amounts of horse meat, sold it as beef, and made a profit on the deal. That’s who is to blame. And we don’t know how long they’ve been doing it. This could have been going on for a very long time.
Back in the early ’90s Tesco ran a series of ads featuring Dudley Moore’s search for chickens, in the course of which he encountered many charming ‘artisan’ suppliers of other products, such as wine and grapes, for the supermarket.
Maybe this was true once. Maybe it’s true now; I don’t know. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get starry-eyed about our food, no matter how much it’s dressed up in advertisements. The food industry is a business, and business is business. It’s not pretty, it’s not bucolic, it’s not a charity. At the bottom of everything is profit. Advertisements, the lifestyle they promote, are just fantasies designed to make us buy things. That cottage pie you just stuck in the oven wasn’t made by a rosy-cheeked farmer’s wife using beef she reared herself and potatoes she dug out of her own garden. The potatoes came from enormous agribusinesses and the meat has been travelling about Europe in lorries for a while. But that’s not such an attractive image.
Perhaps that’s the most enduring lesson we’ve learned from this whole thing. As I write this, Nestle has removed beef pasta meals from sale because horsemeat has been found in them. There are signs, I think, that this is not just the work of one criminal mastermind. It seems to me that a number of suppliers may have been palming horsemeat off as beef. And as I said, it seems likely – to me, anyway – that this has been going on for quite a while.
The horse, if you’ll excuse me, has already bolted.