Britain has been scandalised by the news that many “beef-burgers” sold in major supermarkets contain traces of other meats, including pork and — shock horror — horse! Reportedly some Tesco burgers had 29% horse meat. Cue innumerable horse-jokes and puns (I liked the Matt cartoon of a father offering burgers to a child with the caption “You always wanted a pony”). Plus immediate panic in the supermarket business, with huge numbers of burgers removed from the shelves and — presumably — destroyed. And newspaper stories speaking constantly about “contamination”.
But was it really “contamination”? Let’s be clear. It is an offence against food labelling laws to declare the product to be made of beef, while adding other and cheaper meats. But the fact is that horse meat is perfectly healthy and nutritious. The burgers may have been illegal in labelling terms, but they were good healthy protein. I am sorry to think of all that good food effectively wasted, when many in the world go hungry.
In the same way, it was tragic during the BSE scare, to see so much food destroyed because of rather small and speculative risks. Imagine going to the world’s starving and saying “Would you rather starve now, or eat meat and accept a vanishingly small risk of a life-threatening disease in twenty years’ time?”. I daresay they would accept beef-and-horse-burgers with gratitude and relish. And in the case of the burgers, there is no risk at all.
The problem with horse-meat in England is largely cultural and emotional. We love our horses, and are shocked at the idea of eating them. But then as a dairy farmer remarked to me, “I love my cows, but I have no problem eating beef”. We are told that we are all now “European Citizens” (though I don’t remember agreeing to be a European Citizen), and many of our neighbours in Europe happily eat horse-meat. I’ve eaten horse-meat in France, and it was perfectly pleasant and acceptable.
And before you get too shocked — you’ve probably eaten it too. Ever had Italian salami? Of course you have. And the chances are it had a proportion of horse or donkey in the mix.
The issue is not whether we eat horse-meat, but whether the horses are humanely treated before the end up on the plate. That’s why I’ve done a of work over the years on the rules relating to long-distance horse transport.
The burgers concerned in this case were (according to news reports) at the bottom end of the price range. These are the burgers that in these straightened times, mothers struggling with the household budget would have been buying for their children — and the children would be none the worse for them. An economical and tasty meal.
Maybe an enterprising supermarket could start a new economy range of burgers described as “Beef and other meats”.