Horse meat: why is anyone surprised?

You pay peanuts, you get monkey.

The most surprising thing about the recent horse meat scandal is that it seems to have taken people by surprise. Surely, common sense dictates that the "meat" in a £1.99 frozen lasagne is liable to be a spurious collection of trotters, gizzards and skin: ground from the pallid, factory-reared and brutalised remains of an almost unrecognisable animal, frozen and flown from the far ends of the earth in service of the bottom line. The disconnect between the reality of the food we consume and the ways in which it is produced is so firmly entrenched, the reaction in the media has come as quite a shock. Our suspicions have been confirmed, but so long as nobody is poisoned, does it really matter?

A mental block emerges when we try to think about meat. There are so many cheap "meat products" in the supermarket, but so few cows in our fields (horses, rats, whatever). Bright and cheerful food packaging suggests a wholesome and hygienic process, but the reality is tucked away, hidden behind borders where the EU has no jurisdiction, sold at rock-bottom prices as if it were some kind of egalitarian effort being made on our behalf. Every little helps though, doesn't it?

As the logic of austerity continues to enjoy its status as our national ideology (nothing, politicians seem to imply, matters more than British businesses turning a profit – with the possible exception of reducing the deficit, something which is not synonymous with creating jobs and improving living standards), consumers will continue to expect to eat as they have always done, for cheaper than ever before. Profits for investors must remain stable while savings are being made, and so the onus is heaped upon suppliers.

Of course, the privilege of eating meat should not only belong to those who can afford organic, fresh, British or Irish produce (look at the price of such meat - £18 plus – and use it as a guideline: this is the actual price of the thing you think you’re eating for £1.99). John Harris is quite right to point out the ways in which implausibly cheap food has become an economic necessity. I don’t particularly like animals, but like Harris, I try to avoid eating them. My main objection is not per se with eating something that was slaughtered for my enjoyment, but with the total lack of resemblance between the thing on my plate and the thing in the field. I am not squeamish in butcher shops. In fact, I admire the artisanal element of the work, and the relative honesty and openness about what goes on there. Buying ready meals is a far less visceral experience. More people will react to a hook laden with pig’s trotters than to a nicely packaged lasagne, but it is the amnesic quality of the latter that should really raise the alarm.

One reason why the vegetarian PR machine is so ineffective is that it tries to do battle with a structure capable of covering up the genocidal mechanisms of modern factory farms, where animals are housed in spaces hardly larger than their bodies, drugged up to the eyeballs, separated from their parents and grow in painful, pustular, spasmodic contortions, before being ineffectually stunned and (in some cases) dismembered while still conscious. I have every sympathy with those who wish to eat beyond their budgets (and also with those who love the salty, fatty gristle within). I do it from time to time, because I am weak, and because my taste buds evolved in response to the pungent TV banquets of my youth: soylent-twizzlers and micro-everythings with plenty of "red" sauce. But when I eat a sausage, I am under no illusion about the haziness of its origins. It tastes good, and assuming it's not harmful, I wouldn't expect much more for the price.

If everyone were forced to spend a day in a modern, hyper-industrialised slaughterhouse, far fewer people would be prepared to eat meat. The horse meat "crisis" has received plenty of air time in the Commons, but MPs are failing to confront the real issues. Scapegoats are emerging: Ireland, France, Romania. The problem is "out there", and so too is the solution. We will test their products more effectively, to make sure this never happens again. But it will. Criminalising a single incident which is indicative of a larger social and ethical dilemma, is nothing but a patch. It will do nothing to damage a globalised economy in which maximising profits and minimising labour costs are prioritised above all else. For this to work, abstraction from the facts is essential. Processes are streamlined, savings are made, and the by-product is tonnes of festering meat. You think horse meat is a problem? We have barely scratched the surface.

Tesco value spaghetti bolognese was the most recent product found to contain horsemeat. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad