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?

11 thoughts on “The big fat horsemeat debate”

  • YES. All this. The attitudes taken to people living in food poverty are absolutely disgraceful. There’s an awful “beggers can’t be choosers” attitude which then condemns them when they can’t choose to waft to a farm shop to pick up fresh sourdough.

  • Thank you for a balanced write up. The difficulty here is that there are people actively fibbing. Beef is beef, not horse. Labelling laws, especially meat content are a complex thing. Nowhere do any of these laws or regulations allow for a generic “meat” label in the human market. With the level of fraud currently assumed we don’t have much idea over what state “horse” is in?

  • Agree that trust & respect are key but challenge your view that by knowing what’s on the label (e.g. buying Spanish chorizo) you circumvent the problem. in fact much continental chorizo – tasty as it may be – is made using factory farmed pigs. Labelling is not enough & our meat being of the ‘wrong’ species – though horribly deceptive – is only part of the problem. This scandal does need addressing but to get real trust & respect wee need to work harder than closing down a few places, revisiting labelling & even shortening food chains.

    Agree too that it seems as if poverty & time poverty are causes but this is cultural as well a real. We have to plan ahead, eat the same meal more than once, demand much better value (real value) for our money from suppliers. Its complex but we need to pay more for some products (joints of meat) in order to get a product that we value and so use better.

  • Absolutely – its driving me crackers and I too am hitting unfollow like it’s going out of style lately. I am beginning to realise that there are many many people who don’t know what it’s like to be hungry – to be the mother who doesn’t eat so her children can, to be the girl who turns up at Guides hungry every week as she’s a young carer. And if you are those people then you need food to stay warm and keep going, not to instagram, celebrate or use to try out a new recipe. Being fortunate now doesn’t mean that a memory isn’t fresh in your mind and ultimately as you say it’s down to greed and taking advantage of those whose choices are limited. M has taken to leaving the room when I start ranting now!

  • I agree, my issue the horsemeat scandal is not that it’s horsemeat, it’s that I don’t know what else is being passed off as beef mince when I buy from my supermarket. I work full time and do not drive so the only time I can get to my butchers is 8:15 in the morning when I walk past. I feel like supermarkets have completely taken advantage of the trust consumers put in them to provide them with what it says on the packaging. It’s going to be hard for them to recover from this.

  • It’s completely shocking that it’s cheaper to buy a pre-made lasagne than to get the ingredients and make it from scratch yourself. Our priorities in this country are just wrong. We need to make good food affordable for everyone – it’s the same in the US, if not worse, where families can buy a complete fast food meal for the same price as a head of broccoli, let alone real meat.
    Great article Jules.

  • Great, great article – and I hear what you say about the time issue, but it is possible to plan ahead, cook in bulk etc so you can cook from scratch with ingredients you trust – it’s a question of choice to an extent, but I agree with the little loaf that it’s shocking that it is cheaper to be the ready made version than to make from scratch – given all the processing surely it should be more expensive?? (yes, I know, economies of scale etc apply, but it makes me balk).

  • Jules – great piece! I’ve been fuming about the food snobbery about this whole horsemeat fiasco. I leave work at 6:30pm most evenings and there are no butchers open! The easiest option sometimes is to pop into the local supermarket or do an online shop. No point hating supermarkets – they do well because people shop there. It’s simple demand and supply!! And Food poverty affects everyone, particularly in the current economic climate. I work as a Director in a global communication consultancy and even I have to watch the price labels – no shame in that when I have to feed a family of four, plus hungry friends and extended family. Thank you for bringing a modicum of common sense and balance to the debate.

  • I’m a vegetarian, but I feel the same. I think it is hypocritical to be upset at eating horse, if you are happy to eat cows, pigs and chickens. However, I do think you should know what you are buying, it should be clear on the packaging.

  • A well-balanced article but I have one little niggle – it’s not a “vegetarians vs meat eaters” point, more just trying to point out a misnomer that can lead people to believe that we were built to eat lots of meat, and perhaps justify the amount of meat that is generally consumed these days (not pointing fingers, just generalising here!). The small point is that our teeth are far from carnivorous in shape. We have “canines” but this together with our jaw size, shape and pressure exerted through the jaw is again far from that of a true carnivore. Our teeth are closer to those of vegetarian primates (gorillas are vegetarian and their canines are massive compared to ours). Our teeth are the correct shape for crushing and chewing, and occasionally biting and ripping food, but not for attacking or injury. I think this is a huge clue that we are more suited to opportunistic eating (scavenging) – a varied diet – but in a modern lifestyle if you don’t follow a plant-based diet for ethical, heath or ecological reasons, then I do think it’s a pointer that perhaps meat doesn’t need to be such a frequent addition to daily food consumption. So I’m not saying “meat eating is wrong”, but I am saying the quantity of meat that is consumed is definitely a factor and one of the many roots of this whole problem. But as for provenance of food, trust, accountability and transparency in the food and meat market, I think you’re spot on. However rich or poor we are, generally we’re too far removed from where our food comes from, and that needs to change.

Say hello!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.