Horse spotted in Lasagne: British Food Insecurity

I’ll never send my horse through those gates.  He won’t end up in a pie in England.

— Ion Hampu, Romanian labourer, The Sun, February 12, 2013

Short cuts are irresistible. In marketing, they are overwhelming. In the food industry, they have, at times, assumed the force of legal writ.  “No artificial flavours or colours,” is less a statement of truth than a slogan on frozen food packages designed to reassure the insecure.  To advertise one thing, and serve another; to promise one form of product, but conceal the nature of its contents, is part and parcel of the food industry.  But that doesn’t stop one fuming at the discovery of such practices.  The righteous and deceived consumer makes a difficult dining companion.

Hence, the horse-in-lasagne scandal in Britain, which goes to show that one of humanity’s most industrious animals can also be an object of trickery at the family, or single dinner table.  First, horse meat was found in hamburgers.  Then, it was found in lasagne and thereafter in a spaghetti by-product available through the Tesco chain.  Ground horse meat has also been found in supermarkets in France and Sweden, and a few German stores have been pulling products for fear of finding the same.

These discoveries, of course, haven’t stopped the John Bull element in Parliament railing against the European Union and those dissimulating continentals with their shaky meat production practices.  The Eurosceptics are frothing at supposed conspiracy.  Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun is sniggering with its “investigative journalism” after going inside a “grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU cash and one of the sources of the horse meat scandal which has rocked Britain”.  Never mind that the production of horse meat from that particular concern was a minute 0.5 percent of its entire operations and labelled to boot.  Nick Parker, the delightful journalist in question, even had a harsh word for the unfortunate cart pullers: “Knackered old nags were killed and butchered at CarmOlimp abattoir before being sent to France and on to Luxembourg.”

Britain’s Environment Secretary Owen Paterson could see criminals everywhere besieging a pure British food market via a “faith based system that isn’t working”, another salvo aimed at the faceless wonders in Brussels.  This, incidentally, from the same chap who sees no problems whatsoever with GM crops, claiming they have “real environmental benefits” (Telegraph, December 10, 2012).

British food insecurity may, however, stem from sources outside the EU, less a matter of Romanian horse meat exporters than enterprising Mexicans. This has been the inadvertent result of the last animals shipped from the U.S. to Mexico after court judgments led to the closure of the last equine abattoirs in 2007.

According to James Forsyth writing for The Spectator (February 13), horse meat exports from Mexico to the EU rose from 1.3 million kg in 2006 to 4.3 million kg in 2007, peaking at 7.4 million kg in 2010.  This has made Paterson nervous, given that the horsemeat in question comes from animals that were in all likelihood systematically doped for the duration of their not so natural lives.  (Britain’s American cousins do that sort of thing.)

Such revelations have shown yet again the enormous ignorance of food production practices by consumers and their political representatives.  The networks are labyrinthine and in many cases amoral.  The intermediaries, preferring payment rather than a code of ethics, are refusing to claim any responsibility.  Hugo Rifkind of The Times (February 12) provides a giddy description of the meat networks behind the scandal.  “Findus products were prepared by French food manufacturer Comigel using meat provided by Spanghero, a meat-processing company also based in France.  Spanghero, in turn, obtained its meat from a Romanian supplier.”

The pragmatists want better labelling practices.  The vegetarians want dietary reform.  To solve the horse meat problem, argues a smug and suggestive Amol Rajan in the London Evening Standard (February 11), one should become a principled herbivore.

The image of the pure British food producer has also been blemished, punching a hole in the sails of patriotism.  Among the suspects are such slaughterhouses as Peter Boddy in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, supposedly a supplier of horse carcasses to Farmbox Meats in Aberystwyth, Wales.

The British Food Standards Agency has taken action against these “rogue” operations, shutting down a meat producing factory in Wales and the north England slaughterhouse.  Tests on authenticity have been ordered on all beef products.  Similar ones will be conducted on pork and chicken.  “The agency and the police are looking into the circumstances through which meat products, purporting to be beef for kebabs and burgers, were sold when they were, in fact, horse.”  Those animals, it seems, were not as fortunate as Ion Hampu’s trusty “nag”, an animal that will not be found interrailing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.