January 18, 2013 7:44 pm

Horsemeat and the culinary commentariat

Equine content in burgers is a big deal. So why the jokes, asks Tim Hayward

This week, it emerged that DNA tests on cheap frozen burgers sold by several supermarkets showed up to 29 per cent of the meat content was not the advertised beef but horse. The news provoked an enormous media response. It felt like the biggest we have seen since the outcry over BSE in the 1990s – but this time it had a very different quality.

Broadsheets, late-night television news analysis, food critics and columnists rushed out stories with a universally humorous tone. Newsnight wheeled Stephen Smith, their go-to guy for quirky tales, to a racecourse for a light-hearted look at our love affair with equines. Meanwhile, live in the studio, a chef cooked horsemeat for the presenters to sample. Jockeys were interviewed, foodies opined, strained jokes were made. No one, however, seemed to get particularly angry – which seems rather odd.

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There have been adulteration scares as long as there have been middlemen between producer and consumer. Things reached a nadir in the late Victorian period, with dire tales of ground bones in flour and cyanide used to colour children’s sweets. The regulation under which the food industry operates today is a direct result of those events. It involves a bewildering amount of paperwork in which each organisation in the production process takes responsibility for its own area and vouches for it when passing the goods up the chain.

In time, this Byzantine system of disclaimers and self-certification will tell us the true story of the case. It will, as it is supposed to, reveal how the contamination took place – be it cock-up or conspiracy – absolve most, and plant the blame on the individuals or organisations responsible.

But let us consider, for a second, what getting 29 per cent of horsemeat into a burger actually requires. Certainly, the retailers will have bought the products in good faith from the manufacturers who compressed the minced meat into patties and packaged them. They, in similarly good faith, will have bought their meat from a processor, responsible for selecting and cutting or grinding it. The processor will have bought either boxed lumps of frozen meat or animal carcases from several abattoirs – possibly internationally. Other ingredients and additives will have come from other certified sources. Some participants may perform more than one function, and product may be stored, consolidated or distributed by others – but, with attendant paperwork, the chain from field to fork is complete.

However you look at it, at some point in that chain, more than one in four of the animals led into the slaughterhouse or hanging on a hook did not look anything like a cow.

If the figure of 29 per cent is anywhere near true (and god help us if it is just an average), that is not just a cock-up but deception on a truly stupendous scale. More than a quarter of the meat in those burgers came from animals that are, in effect, not part of our food chain. Although it is not illegal to sell or eat horse in the UK, it is easier to obtain ostrich, zebra or kudu for those of us who have tried. Getting horse into a burger here requires the same level of negligence or fraud as getting dog or rat meat into it.

This is, by any measure, a big deal. So why the jokes? Following the story on Twitter one could see the narrative developing. Many foodies, displaying their sophistication, pointed out that horse is widely eaten on the continent and considered healthy and nutritious – a great improvement on the stuff usually found in cheap supermarket burgers. I confess that, were they available, I would happily buy handmade, responsibly sourced horse burgers. Padding out frozen patties with horse meat is like adulterating fish paste with caviar.

And of course, as commenters were also quick to point out, “our kind” never buys economy frozen burgers from a supermarket anyway. Those who do have no right to expect high-quality ingredients. By the end of the day, several reputable food columnists had gone into print with similar observations. The puns – “horse d’oeuvres”, “high in Shergar” – were many and awful.

Yet the adulteration of cheap food to increase profits remains as reprehensible and as scandalous as when unscrupulous Victorian intermediaries made fortunes from it.

For me, however, the most queasy part of this week’s events has little to do with the adulteration of food itself – that was grimly predictable – and more to do with the ugly light in which it has cast the culinary commentariat. By treating this case as a light-hearted issue, we are demonstrating that we care about the product only to the extent that it affects us personally. Indeed, most of our national dialogue about food involves well-off people talking to each other about their lunch. Because this scandal surrounds a contaminant with a certain cachet – and because it affects only those who pay £1 for half a dozen frozen “beefburgers” rather than £2.50 for a single artisanal, rare-breed “hamburger”, it is not an outrage. In fact, it is rather amusing.

The discovery of horse in our burgers has shown that there are a few rotten people in the food industry who could not care less about consumers. Our response in the media, though, has shown many more of us to be deeply selfish, too.

The writer is a food writer, broadcaster and restaurateur

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