Why horse meat leaves a bad taste in the mouth

Scoffing at neighbours who discovered that the value “beef burgers” they bought at the supermarket had horse in them won’t make life any better for those of us who are better off.

The horse-meat scandal is now, in our novelty-hungry world, a chestnut as ancient as Shergar, kicked into the long grass by stories of triangular flapjacks. Food fraud is a story as old as commerce itself. A few years ago my noble predecessor in this column Bee Wilson published a fascinating book on the subject called Swindled, which I recently reread with horrified fascination.

Horse pops up a couple of times: once in the form of powdered liver, which, rumour has it, unscrupulous Victorian coffee merchants used to eke out their loathsome brews, and once in a chapter discussing the work of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The British public has long suspected that donkey and horse meat find their way into salami from the Continent, Wilson says, “but these fears were partly xenophobic, based on the notion that foreigners eat suspicious things”. A 2003 FSA survey found such fraud “practically non-existent”.

Perdita and Peregrine may have been relieved to hear that their artisan cured meats had been given the all-clear, but the authenticity unit apparently didn’t think to take a look at the stuff coming in at the other end of the market. With notable exceptions (the fake free-range eggs scam of 2009 springs to mind, or the Turkish lamp oil passed off as Tuscan extra-virgin), it’s usually the poorest in our society who suffer most from such cheats.

There seemed to be a hint in some sections of the media that these unfortunates had colluded in their own deception. “Come on, with meat at that price, what did you expect?” laughed one man I heard interviewed. His words came back to me when I read Friedrich Engels’s observation, from his 1845 study, The Condition of the Working Class in England, that many workers sought out food as late as possible on a Saturday evening, when it would be reduced for a quick sale: “nine-tenths of what is sold at ten o’clock is past using by Sunday morning, yet these are precisely the provisions which make up the Sunday dinner of the poorest class”.

The irony is that once upon a time it would have been a lot harder to get rid of that rotten meat. Medieval Europe had a food industry policed by guilds. Fraud and bad practice went on but the punishments meted out to those who brought the good name of the Worshipful Companies into disrepute were severe enough to act as an effective deterrent.

Unfortunately for us, this heavily regulated system declined early in Britain and was replaced rapidly by a rampant free market. The laissez-faire approach proved disastrous when it came to food; one witness to an 1855 parliamentary inquiry into food fraud – the chairman of a local board of health – argued that no one expected vendors to give them what they’d asked for and “neither do I think it beneficial that it should be so”.

No wonder tragedies such as the 1850 Tooting orphan scandal, in which a large number of pauper children died after eating adulterated oatmeal, were rife in the Victorian era. Following recent revelations, Wilson’s grim observation, “that the contract for institutional food was usually offered to the lowest bidder, and it was an economic impossibility to become the lowest bidder without some swindling”, seems to ring almost as true about our schools and hospitals today.

On the bright side, horse meat is unlikely to kill anyone. Yet for all the jokes about long faces, the episode raises serious questions. If you don’t know what’s in your frozen ready-meal then it’s impossible to exercise proper judgement about whether to eat it. Such deception robs us, consumers in the most basic sense, of any real choice about what we put into our own and our children’s bodies. And that leaves a very bad taste indeed.

 

The frontage of a horsemeat butcher in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images

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 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain