I don’t think I’ve eaten horse … well not knowingly. I’ve tried my fair share of the weird and wonderful in my travels (rattlesnake, alligator, zebra, warthog, various of Bambi’s relatives, squirrel, assorted insects), and some of it has been enjoyable, but horse has never reared its head, knowingly. I don’t see the point of having horse, unless you know it’s horse you are eating. And that’s at the root of this current scandal – what is in the food we eat?
Labels on food can be confusing things – just try working out what product is better for you if you want to control your sugar, fat or salt. And as for some of the components, whether E numbers or not, who knows what some of them are, even if you can spell the words. But when it says 100% beef, you sort of expect it to be 100% beef – and not 100% horse, 29% pork or 10% some other animal barely on nodding acquaintance with a cow.
At the moment it looks like the problem lies with a criminal conspiracy to pass off cheaper horse as more expensive beef in processed products and meals … but we do not yet know for certain. Currently it is a labelling issue, not a health issue, though there is that nagging feeling over “bute” and questions over what other corners were cut or rules avoided. If you are calling horse, beef, then what else might you get up to?
So what might we take from this? Well it is easy to pin the blame on the lack of testing and checking. If you put your name to a product then you need to take ownership of its quality. But can we test everything and could tests be avoided by the unscrupulous? We need more testing, but it’s not perfect. So we might instead look to better traceability for the consumer, which means shorter supply chains – will this prove a boost to British and local farmers and local butchers and retailers? But let’s remember there are British producers under investigation here already. Getting closer to the producers is important but asking questions of where stuff comes from and what’s in a product seems sensible, and maybe our rights need to be strengthened here?
The media may also have a role to play, but they are ambiguous at best at the moment. We need investigative journalism in this area, but how does that square with the constant commentary calling for ever lower prices? How can we get “value” to mean the right thing and not just the cheapest? And why has the focus been on labeling, which is a choice issue, when “contamination” with pork infringes religious beliefs rather than simply choice sensibilities?
And that issue of choice and what we each consume came back to me at the end of the week in another context, as I read about the opening of the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on an out of town retail park in Edinburgh last week. Three mile tailbacks for several days, police called to control the traffic, and £60K spent at the store on Day One. Now Scots like sweet things, but this is a bit extreme even by our standards, especially at upwards of 350 calories per doughnut. Now where did I put that box of 12 by the way?
So where’s the problem here? Beef that is criminally horse or doughnuts that pile on the pounds? We knowingly munch our way through things that are not good for us, all the time, despite what we might read on the label. Perhaps it is time we really thought about these choices, and their consequences, and recalibrated our relationships with some food stuffs, whether doughnuts or locally produced meat.
At least let’s hope that these Americans at Krispy Kreme are intending to pay their fair share of taxes – the NHS in Edinburgh might need a boost in revenue soon.