Reflections on a scandal


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.

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11 Responses to Reflections on a scandal

  1. Peter Little says:

    As Roger implies, horsemeat in foods is only direcrtly relavant to the trading standards-related issue – ie I was sold horsemeat when I I was told I was buying beef. Similalrly the ‘Bute’. These are only totems for the real, far more substantive issue: a loss of control of our food and the associated supply chain; whilst impoverishing British farmers in the pursuit of cheap food. And thus lack of control of what it contains from a food safety and ‘moral / cultural’ perspective. How do we know thatfood is being tested for possible safety-related constituents/ Are tests contaminant-specific, or are ‘general’ tests available that would pick up the majority of non-safe contaminants? Answer: We as the Public don’t know. Similalrly, are tests available to etsblish food contents we might consider ‘culturally’ unacceptable (even if not unsafe); as examples, cats or dogs?

    We’re told that much of the horse meat derives from eastern Europe (in particular Romania), as a result of the new laws there prohibiting horse-drawn vehicles on highways/roads, thus making horses ‘eonomicallt redundant’ and of more value via tne knacker’s yard; and via that route into our uncontrolled / untested food chain.

    I offer a solution to this (hopefully temporary) problem: sine (we are also informed without consultation) that the opening of our borders will generate a huge wave of Romanian immigrants. So: We should gatheer vup all the ham – sorry horseburgers and lasagnes, put them in a deepfreeze, them put them into hampers to issue to the Romaians when they artive, as welcome gifts, and to make them fel at home.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Mike Spilligan says:

    Mr H: A good, balanced post, especially so as you’ve brought back Leveson to our attention. This is a scandal in itself and it seems that the “media”, even the printed press which has most to lose, has moved on to other matters. I so hope that there’s a concerted move against any of the options so far proposed, where even the “least worst” is a step too far.
    Of course, the Dowler case was bad but the “hanger-on” celebrities are a scandal in themselves, and the EU seems to want to expand the bare bones of a control system. Who to blame? Cameron, again, who reacted too quickly, thinking about the good headline before thinking about the dangers.

  3. Phil J says:

    Ah, the free pres! I totally agree with you Roger excepting the fact that when it suits them, and the great budgets they garner from government advertising etc the free press is not always so free. Take the smoking ban for instance! Never have I seen a section of our everyday society repeatedly print such unqualified BS in all my life as various papers fell over themselves to print any old tripe released by the anti tobacco crusaders. So called “Medical Studies” such as the ‘heart attack studies’ were rushed into print claiming 17% decreases in hospital admissions (Prof Jill Pell) – only to force an apology from the BBC, live on air shortly after. The Asthma attack figures-totally spurious & debunked by renowned, honest statisticians. The ludicrous claim that SHS caused SIDS when in fact no such thing was ever proven etc….
    I could go on and on about how hack journalists simply jump on a bandwagon when government waves the £ sign but where are the true journalists who ask what dire effects the smoking ban is having on this country, what businesses have closed and what is the cost in human misery? Now that would be a free press my friend!

  4. Auralay says:

    A very good post, Mr Helmer. Well reasoned and balanced. Thank-you.
    But do you think you owe an apology to Dr. North?

  5. Linda Hudson says:

    I will leave the eating of horsemeat to the French, Belgiums, and Italians thankyou, and have our food regulations back in U.K. safe hands, thankyou very much!

  6. Elaine Woosey says:

    As a consumer, one of the biggest issues for me was the fact that even the manufacturers did not know what was in their products. Which means we could be eating anything and the list of ingredients means absolutely nothing. For this reason I have stopped buying meat products of any sort. The total lack of control in the food industry has completely destroyed my trust.

    • Linda Hudson says:

      I eat only meat from M&S, and MORRISONS, they are the only people who can guarantee that their meat is from British farmers only, and have their own abbattoirs, you can really taste the difference, and an added bonus is, the meat is very reasonably priced too!

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