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Horse meat disco / What is at steak

At first it was just a few burgers in the ‘value’ ranges of some supermarkets, with levels of up to 30 per cent at most, quietly withdrawn from sale with only passing mention in the press. A few weeks later, frozen lasagnes were found to contain 100 per cent horse meat and then it was all over the news. Horse meat was found in spaghetti bolognese, mince meat, in school and hospital foods, at IKEA and not only in frozen food. Bolognese sauce and chili con carne also contained horse. Everywhere, ready-made meals supposedly from cows in fact contained a bit, or a lot, of horses.

On the radio, FSA spokespeople were audibly flustered at suggestions the authority had been asleep on the watch. Supermarkets were keeping schtum, neither denying nor confirming they had known all along. A couple of UK slaughterhouses were raided and said they had nothing to hide. Suspicions were focused on Romania until they produced documentation proving they had correctly labelled their horse meat. Nobody fesses up and nobody can say who is responsible. Sales of frozen beef go down, while local butchers pick up business. Sales of vegetables remain the same. In other news, police in the US are on a manhunt for a disaffected former colleague and the UK government’s workfare scheme is declared illegal. North Korea explodes a nuclear bomb underground.

Investigators get lost in the supply chain: animals transported all over Europe are slaughtered in one country then pass through agents in another country, who send them on to food factories in other countries, which export their products all over. All UK supermarkets are ordered to test their cow products for horses and 17 of the more than 5000 products tested come back positive. The numbers are perhaps not quite as alarming as feared. Some consumers don’t care, some are disgusted. Waitrose says its frozen meatballs contain pig DNA. A food authenticity expert says lamb products should also be tested. An ex-FSA expert says all this was bound to happen after an EU ruling that pink slime – mechanically reformed flesh taken off the bone with a high-pressure hose – cannot be used as material for human food. There was suddenly no cheap source of meat. And then along came the horses.

Vegetarians perhaps are less surprised at each passing day’s revelations. Non-vegetarians feel horror, disgust, shock. The horror – that what you are eating is not what you think it is. Imagine finding out that Quorn actually contains 97% horses, processed beyond all recognition. What next? Linda McCartney pies? Even meat-eaters can’t believe they are vegetarian. Honest food labelling is important for all.

There is some bleak humour to be found in the timing of the scandal breaking as David Cameron tries to distance the UK from the EU with intimations of an in/out referendum. At first the problem seemed to stem from the continent; they eat horses in France, after all. But then the scandal hits home. Look, Dave, you have been European all along.  ‘Now it’s British beef’ cries the MailThe Daily Telegraph is aghast that ‘Horse meat [is] found in UK firms’. But horses have long been slaughtered in the UK to be turned into food products, though mostly to be fed to our pets, who would also be grateful for some accurate food labelling. After all, where do all the horses go, including the discarded failures of the quest to create champion thoroughbreds? They shoot horses, don’t they? There is confusion over what role these UK businesses play. Assurances from supermarkets that they will only source meat from British animals will not necessarily prevent future contamination. The answer put forward is improved food traceability and shorter supply chains.

No real cause for alarm yet from the health department, despite warnings over the horse painkiller bute ending up in the human food chain and the apparent uselessness of the horse ‘passport’ system. The response is strikingly different to when news of BSE in British cows broke. For a long time it didn’t break at all, though agriculturalists knew what was happening. When finally it did, the potentially fatal consequences were downplayed. It took almost a decade to get British beef off the shelves. But at the first indication of horse meat, supermarket refrigerators are cleared overnight. Still no major health implications announced.

At stake is Britain’s mythology of itself (the same goes for all other non-horse eating societies). Harriet Ritvo puts the time lag in the BSE period down to myth: of great British beef, a nation built on the backs of cows, animal breeds prized throughout Europe. Its importance in Britain’s economy could not be downplayed. At the time nationalist non-vegetarians in Britain were pressuring each other into eating potentially infectious cow meat, while on the other side of the world in Australia the Red Cross has struck off any potential blood donors who had no more than stepped on British soil between 1986 and 1996. vCJD, the human variant of BSE, can take years to incubate once transmitted and 2012 was the first year without a reported death from vCJD in Britain,  more than 15 years after the UK government first said anything official, and many more years since farmers started mumbling about what was happening to their cows, having fed them the brain tissue of their dead brethren.

Britons do not eat horses. This is as much a part of their mythology as that they do eat cows. The UK would not be the only nation to affiliate one of its chief exports with its imagined national identity: Australians eat lamb because sheep are a part of that country’s mythology: white settlement was built on the backs of sheep transported on ships from England. The least an Australian can do to honour that history is to kill and eat an ancestor of these ovine migrants.

Perhaps eating British horses is less of a health risk than eating British cows, now being scourged by bovine TB. That this situation has arisen from intensive farming practices will not stand in the way of a good old-fashioned badger massacre. The problem is always in another type of animal – the wild ones, the foreign ones – and the solution is, inevitably, to kill all the animals and be more careful about which ones you eat. Is improved food traceability the only change that is needed?

Further reading:

‘Mad cow mysteries’, Harriet Ritvo, The American Scholar 67 (2): 113-122, 1998.

‘Veganism is the answer to the inevitable question’, Jasmijn de Boo, The Huffington Post Blog23 February 2013.

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