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The big fat horsemeat debate

hunk of beef

A few days ago I did my latest stint on radio. I was debating topical issues and the current news is a god send for anyone who has an interest in food and the debates surrounding it. One of the topics touched on the horsemeat scandal, though due to time constraints I felt I didn’t do the topic justice. There’s a good reason why my business goal is to make enough to fund a MSc in Food Policy & Nutrition, I’m fascinated by it.

The whole horsemeat scandal is a complicated one. Some will blame consumers, some will blame the supermarket, some will blame another country. The biggest issue is trust. As a food producer I put my trust in the Spanish chorizo producer that the product I’ve bought to use in my products only contains what is on the label and not a cheeky bit of another species. Just like the customers who buy my product trust me to be honest about what ingredients I’ve used.

The only way you can be sure that the meat you are eating is 100% pure is to raise and slaughter the meat yourself. There are strict laws regarding animal welfare & slaughterhouses in the UK and very few animals you can slaughter yourself at home (yes I know there is a whole debate about this alone). Even by taking other countries out of the equation doesn’t solve food fraud. In every industry there will always be someone willing to cut ethical and moral corners to make extra profit. I know I’ve been missold meat by local butchers more than once before and it’s not as if I use the fallen-off-the-back-of-the-lorry “butcher” at the dodgy weekend market.

Biologically our bodies have evolved to be meat eaters, our canine teeth are proof of this and meat is a major protein source for the majority of the UK population. However have we come too accustomed to cheap meat? Should it be seen as a luxury? I know here it is. We have a roast on Sunday that provides meat for a few other meals & lunches, one other meal of meat and the rest of the time it’s fish or vegetarian. I suppose you could say we’re carnivores with vegetarian tendencies.

In reality it’s not the fact horsemeat has appeared in burgers that’s the issue. Horsemeat is a lean, tasty meat that is openly eaten on the continent. It’s because an undeclared ingredient that has appeared in the food production process through greed and unethical practices.

Have we as a nation become detached from food processes? When money is tight food becomes fuel not pleasure, just pure and simple fuel. Food poverty is an increasing issue here in the UK and the horsemeat debate has shown some people to be huge food snobs detached from the real world. This isn’t happening in a far-flung country, this is happening on our doorstep. Consequently the twitter unfollow button has been very busy here recently.

Imagine this: you have a family to support, you work every hour under the sun to put food on the table. You can’t shop at the butchers as they are only open when you are at work (my local butcher only opens 10-3 Monday –  Friday). You don’t own a car due to rising petrol prices so the supermarket a short walk away is only option. With the cost of domestic fuel rising dinner needs to be quick to cook, you can’t afford to have the oven on for an hour or two cooking a delicious home-cooked meal from a frugal yet tough piece of meat. At the supermarket you have a choice: 4 x £1 value lasagna that cooks quickly in the microwave or £6 worth of ingredients that means you are 90min away from a meal. You know you are compromising on taste and quality but remember food is now fuel.

Don’t believe the Daily Fail hype that people living like this don’t exist. They do. I work with children and families who are just like this. They are not scroungers or people wasting money on frivolous things like Sky and XBox, they are struggling to make ends meet let alone eat. What it boils down to is whoever you are and whatever food choices you make, you deserve to be given the product you expect when you buy it. Miss South from North/South Food has written a superb post about the reality of food poverty.

Avoiding supermarkets, like some people suggest, isn’t going to help; they are so ingrained in our busy lives and for some unavoidable. Having a choice where you shop is a luxury. Here we don’t have greengrocer or fishmonger only a butcher who is stuck in the 1950s with their limited opening hours.

The horsemeat scandal is far from over and I have a hunch where it is going to appear next. There is not one big answer but it certainly has raised interesting debates about food security, food provenance and trust. Is it about time we gave meat the respect it deserves?

About the author


Freelance food geek who's passionate about food education.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.butcherbakerblog.com/2013/02/15/the-big-fat-horsemeat-debate/

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