I think that the horsemeat jokes have been practically done to death. Personally I liked the Matt cartoon show the front cover of the Racing Post with a starburst advertising their new recipe page. But maybe it’s time to reflect on the horsemeat scandal.
Of course it is absolutely wrong for meat (or any product) to be knowingly mis-labelled, in what amounts to a fraud on the public. A cheaper product has been substituted for a more expensive one, and in the process someone has made a great deal of money.
That said, I do feel that some of the visceral cries of outrage have been a bit overdone. We in Britain used to eat horsemeat regularly. The French still do. And if you’ve ever eaten Italian salami, chances are you’ve ingested some horsemeat too. Generally speaking we’re fairly relaxed about eating herbivores. We eat beef. We eat lamb. We eat venison. We eat rabbit.
In Korea, they also eat carnivores — dog, though in my four years in Korea I never did. How do I know that? Because dog is regarded as a delicacy, and no one would give you dog without mentioning it, just as no one would give you caviar and pretend it was fish-paste.
But I’ve certainly eaten horse, despite my high regard for horses. We keep a couple of horses at my home in Leicestershire. I’m very fond of them, and I delight in bringing them sugar-lumps. But then as a dairy farmer put it to me, “I love my cows. But I still eat beef”. There is of course the question of possible horse-drugs in the beef, especially “Bute”. But the medical opinion seems to be that even if there are traces of Bute in the meat, the quantities will be so tiny as to be irrelevant.
I am particularly saddened that rather large quantities of perfectly good, tasty, wholesome ready-meals have been taken off the shelves, and (presumably) destroyed. This seems a wicked waste of food, when millions starve around the world, and in the UK many families are struggling to keep food on the table.
But I think there is a wider lesson to be learned. Bear in mind that the EU has taken over competence for food safety and food labelling. And as usual we have a system which is excessively complex, onerous and difficult to police. And in the end, no amount of box-ticking can solve the problem. But what has solved the problem — or at least got it out into the open where it can be addressed — is a free press, which has led to a public outcry and demands for action.
What the Brussels mandarins fail to do, the media can achieve. So as we contemplate the Leveson Inquiry, and the widespread demands for more press regulation, we should do well to remember that a free press is our best bulwark of liberty, both against over-mighty politicians and against many of the evils and abuses that beset society. It was the press that uncovered the MPs’ expenses scandal. It was the press that uncovered the Stafford hospital scandal. And now they’ve put the horsemeat scandal firmly on the agenda. If we allow the government to regulate the press, as some voices are demanding, we do so at our peril.