At the moment, we are in the middle of The Great Horsemeat Scandal, as John Humphrey’s put it this morning on the Today programme. And the web of intrigue grows daily with little hope of an early resolution.
For those that do not know, The Great Horsemeat Scandal began when a batch of 100% beef burgers were found to contain a little less than that, the extra percentage made up of horse. The scandal has snowballed from this leading to some products actually containing 100% horse, with nary a skerrick of cow.
Not that there’s anything wrong with horsemeat, per se…I should qualify that. Apparently there’s a drug called Bute, which is given to horses and remains in their system and can be hazardous to humans if digested in high quantities. The fact mentioned on the radio yesterday was that a person would have to eat around 500 horsemeat burgers a DAY in order to be affected. Even Nicktor would struggle to eat that many.
Anyway, horsemeat is not hazardous to humans and, in fact, is regularly eaten in France and other countries around the world. Here, in the UK, we are a bit squeamish when it comes to eating them so, generally speaking, it’s off the menu. However, that doesn’t stop us producing horsemeat for export.
No, the real problem is incorrect labelling. If a product claims to be 100% beef we expect it be all beef. I’m excluding the sort of person who thinks you can have more than 100% of anything.
Over the last couple of weeks, as the scandal has galloped along apace, the length of the supply chain has come to light. A supermarket may sell a processed meal which may be an own brand product but it was packaged and prepared by different companies and these different companies source their products from different companies and so on.
This tends to make Brand Trust a bit of a myth. For instance, Findus is a well known and trusted brand. They make, among their other meals, a particular lasagne which, last week, tested as containing 100% horsemeat. It has been found that the same company that supplies the Findus meal, also supplies other companies with similar meals.
My favourite (if somewhat melancholic) story of the scandal so far, concerns an old couple (in their 80’s), featured on the news last week. The Findus lasagne is their weekly treat. They’ve always loved it and had a huge stash in their freezer.
Every Thursday, they’d pop a couple in the oven and indulge themselves. Well, not any more.
The husband of the couple, looking decidedly green around the gills, was shown holding one of the offending packets, saying how he’d never eat one again.
Of course, this brings up the whole taste issue. I mean, if something tastes good and you enjoy it, how come it’s suddenly abhorrent when you discover it’s not what you thought it was? But, of course, it’s more than that. It’s trust and knowing what you’re eating is what’s on the label.
I guess, if I was harsh enough, I’d blame William L. Maxson who, in 1944, developed pre-prepared meals for air travellers. Then we could go on to Gerry Thomas, who claimed he ‘invented’ the TV Dinner when the company he worked for (Swanson’s) had a surplus of Thanksgiving turkeys. But I think that would be grossly unfair.
I could also blame an education curriculum which deems cooking skills as unnecessary. According to an article presented at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium last year, it was seen as a problem relating to urbanisation.
In the 1780’s, with rural workers moving to the cities due to the industrial revolution and young women losing the basic cooking skills, previously learned as they grew up, discussions started in order to provide lessons in cooking.
“…ignorance of domestic economy leads to ill health by the purchase of unsuitable and at the same time expensive food.”
Edwin Chadwick, who wrote the above in 1842, was a great health reformer who demanded that cooking be taught to the ‘lower classes’ in order to improve their lives and conditions. Largely due to this sort of social reformer, cooking eventually became an integral part of standard education.
It lasted into the 1980’s and then was dropped. So, no more learning basic cookery skills. A generation later, the children of parents who weren’t taught to cook, can’t even learn in the traditional way. Fortunately, the supermarkets with their processed meals can help out.
A lot of people claim they use processed meals because they have no time to cook from scratch. Others claim that their family schedule means that members of the household eat at different times so it makes more sense to heat up individual meals. I understand these excuses but surely a meal cooked from raw materials is going to be much better. Even better when the ingredients are locally sourced.
But we can’t really blame people lacking in cooking skills for the horsemeat scandal. Clearly the problem is one of accountability and the length of the supply chain.
In purely fiscal terms, a supermarket will try and source products for the cheapest cost in order to make the maximum profit. They then claim to pass the ‘savings’ on to their customers. Obviously the price can be kept low if the cost to the supermarket is also kept low.
However, the company supplying the product to the supermarket will want to do the same thing so it will shop around, looking for the cheapest price in order to maximise their profits. This is capitalism and, rightly or wrongly, is what our modern world is built upon.
To be completely honest, I find it quite funny however, it does highlight a big problem in knowing what we’re eating. We trust the companies to sell us the food we want and it’s a bit of a shock to discover they are not.
While horsemeat is perfectly fine to eat, what happens when we discover someone is using dog or cat? Or, as someone said on the radio, road kill badger?
Of course, this can all be fixed by customers buying only fresh ingredients and preparing meals themselves but, I feel, this won’t ever happen.
I should also report that I’m still sick.