The Horse Flesh Fiasco

That loveable dobbin may have been in the lasagne you just ate has, unsurprisingly, been at the heart of the furore over horse flesh having found its way into the food chain. That’s just not the British way. It’s the sort of nasty thing that foreigners eat and barely one step up from frog’s legs and snails in terms of disgusting and dog in terms of sentiment. Unfortunately, as usual, thanks to the media’s search for easy headlines and government and industry unwillingness to confront the real issues, the controversy has rather missed the point. As much as people might not want to eat horse, that horse is in meals is not the key problem. The problem is that we have been the victims of fraud. It doesn’t matter whether it was horse flesh in your meatballs or pork, the simple fact is that, somewhere along the line, fraud has been committed. It may be the abattoir that has misled the processor, the processor that has misled the supermarkets or the supermarkets that have misled the public – but, wherever along the way fraud occurred, it certainly did occur – and that is worrying.

On the surface, it might seem that all we have to worry about is feeling a little queasy at having eaten an animal we would rather have admired alive and, perhaps, ridden; and, of course, for those with religious dietary restrictions, finding that acceptable beef was unacceptable pork was hardly pleasant news (although those with the strongest feelings on that front are likely to have been eaten halal or kosher certified meat which is less likely to have been involved in this scandal). Perhaps more important to some is the little matter of money – after all, beef costs more than pork or knacker-yard nag, so you will have forked out good money for a second-rate product.

But, even those issues only scratch the surface of the fiasco. There are many implications such as whether the meat was produced in line with ethical standards (after all, if you’re lying about what you’ve killed, why not lie about how you killed it – or even whether you killed it, rather than finding it dead on the roadside) and, most importantly, health – misreporting means that we cannot be certain that the animal was safe for human consumption (not only in terms of the panic over possible drug contamination, but whether it might have been diseased, even dying of disease rather than actually being slaughtered) nor can we be certain that the meat was correctly handled, stored and transported in order to ensure that it remained uncontaminated. Trust has been completely destroyed.

The system needs desperately to be improved to ensure that such frauds cannot be perpetrated as easily in the future. Unfortunately, it seems that they may have had warnings as much as two years ago about the scam and done nothing till not. If the public are to have confidence in their food, the system needs to be not only more proactive but better at reacting when a problem is detected. But, we cannot blame the system alone. People want cheap food and haven’t been too picky about where it comes from – what the eye doesn’t see and all that. I certainly understand the difficulty of affording decent-quality food, but we need to take responsibility for our own diets and resist the temptation of cheap alternatives that are inadequately labelled and policed. People need to be a bit more picky and insist that the supermarkets ensure the quality of what they are buying. In addition, we need to make sure that schools and hospitals stop putting savings before the quality of the food that they serve. Perhaps more than ever, we need to recall that you get what you pay for…

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