Man ist was man isst?
I am still finding it hard to get a grip on exactly what is going on in the great horsemeat scandal. Or rather, it seems that significantly different objections are getting lumped together.
For some people it is a consumer/trades description issue: the packet said the contents were made of beef when in fact it was horse, so the consumer (in this case literally) was being cheated. On this line, it would have been just as bad if the packet had been labelled "horse" but the contents had been beef.
For others, it is a question of health and safety. That is to say, it is not just that the contents are wrongly described, but that the illicit horse meat might still carry traces of the harmful chemicals with which the living horses, never intended to enter the food chain, had been injected.
Still others are concerned about the simple fact that it is horsemeat. Mutton masquerading as beef would not have caused such a stir; but we British just don't eat horse -- and so a food taboo has been broken. Most of us know, deep down, that most animals are perfectly nutritious. And it is striking that, so far as I am aware, none of those customers who tucked into their Findus lasagne seem to have had any inkling on the taste buds that something was awry (have we heard from anyone who claims to have said "it didnt taste like beef to me"?). But cultural identity is heavily embedded in the particular range of those animals we choose to put on our plates. For the British that does not include horse or frogs or dog or cat (though I am grateful to a friend who recently reminded me that Elizabeth David referred to a celebratory dish of roast cat in Sardinia).
What is clear, though, is that the whole business is completely mired in the murky international food trade.
From Romania to France, the UK and Ireland, it seems very hard to work out who was knowingly passing off a lump of horsemeat as a joint of beef, and who simply couldn't tell the difference between them whether cooked of uncooked. In fact the tracking of the ingredients of these processed foods we buy in the supermarket back to their source now seems to be the work of squads of international food (and criminal) detectives.
So how do you escape these murky foodways, especially in the meat department? One answer is, of course, to give it up (an option that I was brought up with by a vegetarian mother). The other is to try to eat the real local stuff.
As we were reflecting on these alternatives, the husband remembered a wry but sad little tale from a few years back. Our local butcher, the excellent Wallers of Victoria Avenue, put out a sign in fron of the shop, advertising that they would shortly be selling the meat from the cattle, then still grazing on the nearby common. There was a mini local outcry from quite a number of residents who felt that it was all a bit insensitive to parade the fact that the handsome beasts we enjoyed watching on the common were shortly to be found on our dinner platers. I think Wallers were forced to take the sign down.
But the butcher has had the last laugh. I think most of us would now agree that it is better to have personal acquaintance with what you're eating that be at the mercy of whoever the scammers or cost-cutters may be, bringing you horse dressed up as beef from Romania, via France.