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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.