Horse meat: what happened, and what happens next?

International mafia conspiracy, deadly lasagnes, calls for more regulation - rounded up.

Back when we just thought some horse meat had crept (trotted?) into a few supermarket value burgers, it didn't seem to be something you had to take particularly seriously. What's wrong with eating horse, we cried. They do in Europe, and everyone knows their food is better - in fact, my colleague Charlotte Simmonds put together some delicious-sounding Italian recipes, in case any readers felt inspired to give it a go. At worse, it was felt to be a failure of the supermarket to keep people informed about what they were eating - if something says "beef burger" on the label, it's not really on to fill the packet with horse instead, is it? Jokes were made on Twitter, most of them awful, and the story gradually died away.

Now, though, it's back with a vengence. Aldi and Findus have both withdrawn ready meals from sale after it was alleged that its beef lasagne contained only horse meat. The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, is touring the television stations this morning, urging people not to panic but warning of "more bad news" when further test results are published on Friday. Many of the papers have looked into the story in some detail, and lots of different angles are emerging. Here's your handy guide to what's happened so far.

It's an international mafia conspiracy

Sources close to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency (Defra) told the Observer that the whole horse meat furore was the result of fraud that had an "international dimension". Polish and Italian mafia gangs apparently run vast schemes where they substitute horse meat for beef during the food production process. Owen Paterson said: "I'm concerned that this is an international criminal conspiracy here and we've really got to get to the bottom of it." The Independent on Sunday has investigated the complicated pan-Europe supply chain arrangements that have lead to this situation - read their account here.

Could it make you ill?

The Mail reported that food inspectors are concerned that some of the meat that ended up in the "beef" lasanges could contain E.coli. One of the companies that supplied Findus with meat - French firm Spanghero - had previously been investigated for a similar scare.

Observer science editor Robin McKie writes that there's a potential risk from a drug called bute or phenylbutazone that is given to horses to "relieve pain and treat fevers". If still present in the meat, it can have side effects in humans, such as triggering "a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia". According to the Sunday Telegraph, there is also a possibility that some of the horse meat came from Romania, "where a virus called equine infectious anaemia is endemic, and has led to a ban on live exports".

What are we doing about it?

For now, more tests. There are more results due on Friday, which is why Owen Paterson is talking a lot about "more bad news" this morning. After that, more tests, more regularly - the Food Standards Agency should be doing DNA testing every three months, Paterson has said. The BBC's Andy Moore has said that up til now, the food industry has "relied on a system of self-policing", a phrase that has rather loud echoes of the way we talked about banks after the 2008 crash. An Observer editorial calls for more independent regulation and more on-site testing - expect more discussion of this in the next few days.

Is this BSE all over again?

No. But British farmers are angry at any suggestion it could be. National Farmers' Union president, Peter Kendall has said: "Our members are rightly angry and concerned with the recent developments relating to contaminated processed meat products. The contamination took place post farm-gate which farmers have no control over." However, in one regard, it could be similar. As Judith Woods pointed out in the Telegraph,  both the BSE controversy and now this horse meat problem have affected consumers' trust that what they read on a packet is really what's going to be inside.

Have the papers gone horse gag-mad?

Surprisingly, and almost disappointingly, today's front pages feature very few horse jokes (perhaps indicating that this is now A Serious Story.) Only two splashed on it. The Sunday Telegraph:

And the Independent on Sunday:

I, for one, was sad not to see the Racing Post take it on:


 

A Dartmoor pony. Don't worry, there's no suggestion any of those have ended up in a lasagne. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt