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.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.