Horses for Courses by Barbara Nadel

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If you live in or are visiting the UK at the moment you won’t be able to get away from the fact that the entire nation is at present obsessed by horse meat. This is because quantities of horse meat, from strands of DNA up to large meaty chunks, have been found in products that have been advertised as being made from 100% beef. These products are things like cheap frozen ready meals and burgers. But horse has also been found in school dinners and food served to patients in hospital.

Now from the outset I must state that for some people, mainly for religious reasons, the discovery of horse in their diet is no joke. In addition to horse, traces for pork have also been found in supposedly halal meals and that is a very serious matter indeed. However, for the those of us who don’t live by religious dietary rules, just how ‘dangerous’ or otherwise is horse meat?

Well it isn’t. The French and the Belgians eat it all the time and, during the Second World War, a lot of British people ate it too, including members of my own family. There is a potential danger if the horse has been taking an anti inflammatory drug called Bute but only if one eats upwards of 600 pure horse burgers contaminated by this drug in the course of one day. So however one may not want to eat horse, it isn’t going to kill you. Good, but as a lot of people so rightly say, that isn’t the point about this scandal. The nub of the argument here is that the public was deceived and, whichever way you swing it, that cannot be right and it isn’t.

To deceive people is always wrong and I am not condoning what the people who produced these foods did in any way at all. What does however give me pause is how shocked people are by it. Until very recently food in this country had been getting cheaper and cheaper for years. Back in the 1950s it was estimated that most families spent on average about 30% of their income on food. By the year 2000 that percentage had dropped to 10%. This was done via a combination of intensive farming and massive powerful supermarkets squeezing every penny out of their suppliers in their endless pursuit of customer satisfaction and maximum profits. Bulk was the name of the game, something that quality did not always follow naturally on from. So we could have a lovely tasty beef lasagne for a pound provided we weren’t too bothered about what might be in it. And we weren’t. Until now.

In my own defence (sort of) the whole ready meal/cheap burger thing entirely passed me by. This is because when I was really poor back in the 1980s ready meals and burgers were too expensive for me, horse meat or no horse meat. Back then my family and I lived on pulses and vegetables with the occasional foray into ghastly grey soya mince. I would have actively welcomed the odd bite of an ex Grand National winner but I just couldn’t afford it. In more recent years however people have been raised to expect not to cook as much as people did in the 1980s and there’s nothing wrong with that (I say this as a shocking cook) but it can and does open the door to Dobbin. Because let’s look at this logically for a moment shall we? How can it really be possible to buy a lasagne made with beef, one of the most expensive meat products on the market, for a pound?

It isn’t. In fact horse is probably the least of our worries when it comes to fake beef lasagne. For a pound I would at least expect a teaspoonful of prussic acid to be in there along with dead badger, bumper of old Ford Escort, the Head of Alfredo Garcia and concrete shavings from the outside of a tower block in Canning Town. Something that was once called ‘The Whistler’ or ‘Derek’s Delight’ would be a positive bonus.

But what is to be done about this situation? Our government rages impotently, but then that is their usual default and so they should really be ignored. As Conservatives they will naturally be on the side of the greedy supermarkets even if their mouths will express outrage and anger. To be fair I don’t suppose they can understand it. None of them have ever eaten anything ‘value’ in their lives and I expect that in private, they are wondering why the lower orders are so worried about having to eat horse meat. I imagine they think it’s probably a step up from usual working class fare which, as we all know, consists of chips and sump oil.

As part of that very lumpen proletariat noted above we are really on our own with this and so we either have to decide to suck Dobbin up or not. If not we’re all going to have to do a bit of an 80s jive and get the red lentils and misshapen vegetables off the market out again. Over the years the supermarkets have encouraged us to buy clean, evenly sized vegetables that look pretty on the plate and have probably racked up more air miles than soul free homunculoid Middle Eastern Peace Envoy, Tony Blair. Consequently we have eschewed so called ‘ugly’ veg which is cheaper and which we must get back to as soon as we can. Ditto meat I’m afraid. Those lovely plump chicken fillets in the supermarket may look like good value as well as being hygienic and redolent of fake tits in reality shows about girls who want to become living Barbies, but they’re full of water, hormones and anyway you don’t need to eat half a chicken to feel satisfied. Buy a dearer one from the butcher and just eat less.

And yes, I know that that doesn’t help if you’ve got a big family but maybe we’re all, including big families, going to have to get used to less meat and fish in the future anyway. In the meantime now it’s out in the open, the whole horse meat thing will have to become a choice. Who knows in years to come maybe the dinner parties of England will ring to the sound of hostesses saying, ‘Would you like a bit of saddle with that Lavina, or will you just make do with a side order of reins?’

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