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

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.