Horsefeathers by Quentin Bates

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I keep wondering when British consumers are going to figure out that price and quality don’t go hand-in-hand. The current scandal is that we Brits, or those of us who buy cheap burgers, lasagne, etc in a range of respected supermarkets have not been feasting on beef, but horse. Enter shock and horror.

Personally I don’t have a problem with eating horses. Living in Iceland it was on the menu often enough, although not in the Westfjords where people have a tradition of ‘not eating our friends’. In the less mountainous parts of Iceland where horses in the past had been presumably more commonplace, there are few such qualms. Icelanders have a history of scratching a living in a country where not much grows and the diet is overwhelmingly protein; mutton, seal, fish, horse, whale. Many of the old traditions have faded, although people like to have their customary winter feast that includes all kinds of stuff that I could never stomach, Icelanders mostly now eat much the same as other Europeans. But horse is available and so is whalemeat.

I don’t have concerns about those. I have far more of a problem with the horrors of the battery-farmed chicken business than with people living in the Arctic who occasionally choose to shoot one of the plentiful seals for the pot, but it’s an attitude that doesn’t always go down well in Britain where urbanites tend to be less aware of where their food comes from.

The British have a downright bizarre attitude to their food, although it’s largely down to the power of advertising by the major food retailers who have educated their customers so effectively. Our food has probably never been so cheap, consumers have been bombarded with the dogma of cheap as part of the constant advertising campaign that’s integral to the life-or-death market share struggle between the retail chains. The majority of consumers buy on price as their main criterion, and are then appalled when they find they’ve been feeding their kids garbage.

Now it seems that the horsemeat scandal isn’t confined to Britain. The horsemeat has been going to many countries, even countries where eating horse isn’t necessarily so much of a problem – but where people are still aggrieved at being hoodwinked into paying a beef price for it.

In Britain it’s not illegal to sell horsemeat, it’s just that nobody wants to buy it, as Brits are as squeamish about tucking into dobbin as we would be about a hedgehog casserole or curried dog. The illegal part is to sell it as beef. Depending how the issue is treated, it could be viewed as a conspiracy to defraud, a charge that could land those responsible behind bars for an uncomfortable stretch.

Will it happen? Certainly not. There’s no evidence that the directors of the retail chains involved had any idea that they were (quite literally) flogging a dead horse to their loyal customers. Will any of those directors find themselves in the dock? Of course not. There is undoubtedly a chain of suppliers and sub-contractors in place that ensures they are at sufficient arm’s length from their raw material to be able to throw up their hands in horror. But this is squarely where the blame lies; with a food business so obsessed with market share, maintaining its share prices and dividends to shareholders that the consumer is the one who gets the rough end of the deal.

In an environment that demands cheap, cheap food means low raw material prices and production standards that are on the fringes the levels required by the law. Is any of this a surprise? It doesn’t take the brain power of an Einstein to figure out that a mass-produced pie or an economy pasty that costs less than £1 isn’t going to contain much by the way of quality meat, especially when you remember that several people along the line expect to make a penny or two of profit from each one.

Our governments have been complicit in going along with the demands of the food industry and its lobbyists for soft-touch regulation. The result is a bizarre situation with farmers in Britain and across northern Europe are required to jump through so many quality and inspection hoops that their businesses are constantly teetering on the edge, while horsemeat from countries where inspection is cursory and there are quick and straightforward ways of dealing with a problem finds it way into the production cycle in substantial amounts; reportedly enough for some ready meals to have consisted of 100% horsemeat instead of beef.

Blame can be dished out all along the chain, from the retailers who demand a product at a set price, to the sub-contractors and their suppliers who have no real choice but to cut corners at every turn to operate at even wafer-thin margins of profit, but it ends up with the unwitting consumer who is taken in by the hype and has been taught to choose price over quality.

Will anything change? Probably not. The business of selling beef is going through a minor upheaval at the moment in the wake of the horsemeat scandal. The chicken, turkey and farmed salmon businesses have already been through these scares in recent years (wild fish is a quite different matter) and after a while it fades away as the consumer just forgets and go back to believing the advertising.

So next time you see a shop selling a 99p pie, or whatever your local equivalent is, think for a moment about what might be in it, what’s probably not in it, and how that 99p might be shared out.

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