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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear