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 Aldi and Findus have both withdrawn ready meals from sale after it was alleged that its beef lasagne contained only horse meat.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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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