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Horse meat: why is anyone surprised?

You pay peanuts, you get monkey.

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

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.