I keep reading updates and bits and pieces about this “horse-meat scandal” and had been wanting to post a few thoughts of my own for a while now. It’s interesting as for me it raises some valid questions about culture, economics, food of course, and subsequently has potential to influence change in our behaviour. I think there’s a lot more to digest than simply headline’s mentioning a stronger association between IKEA’s meatballs and The Grand National than perhaps we’d like, but in dissecting the nation’s outrage I find greater cause for concern than simply a little filly on your plate.
So what’s all the hoo-ha about horse meat then? What are people so pissed off about? Are they pissed off? When I bring it up it seems to be laughed off as a bit of a joke more than anything else. Do people actually care what they put in their mouth? I see the shit that people stuff into their faces everyday, care-free save for any fiscal bother, and now I hear you’re surprised with your meal’s alien content…? Health experts have said the issue is one of food fraud rather than food safety, which makes sense to me as Europe has been consuming horse for ages – there’s nothing wrong with it. For myself the deception is what hurts the most, I’m not too bothered about eating horse, but for others the idea is shocking and disgusting. I don’t like the idea that I’ve munched on IKEA’s meatballs, thinking I was eating was beef when it was actually part horse – that’s not cool dude. But I can’t entirely blame IKEA when it appears the deception originated in Romanian slaughterhouses and the complexity of the food industry’s supply chain across Europe is enough to make you consider going the human centipede route. But for those simply upset about chowing on a little neigh neigh then chill – I used to gag at the idea of sushi but now I love the stuff and there’s a lot of people I know that wouldn’t even consider trying calamari – but that’s all just a case of familiarity. I know squid doesn’t look very appetising but take my advice – try calamari, it’s fucken awesome!
The shock comes from the numbers. According to the European Commission beef and veal prices have risen by more than 45% across Europe over the past five years, while the global auction price for beef has topped $5,300 (£3,500) a tonne. Horse meat, by contrast, currently costs about $1,200 a tonne.
“It is clear that rising beef prices and the relative cheapness of horsemeat have led some people to see the potential for making big profits through fraud,” says Peter Hardwick, head of trade development at Eblex, the English beef and sheep industry body.
But surprisingly despite soaring beef prices, ready meals containing beef mince have not risen in price accordingly, even though the meat is their most expensive ingredient. For example according to research from retail analyst Kantar Worldpanel, the average chilled ready meal costs £2.31, up just 4% over the past three years which is roughly in line with food inflation, raising the question “what the fuck is in this microwave lasagne?” What the fuck indeed! Raise an eyebrow if you will although Britain’s love affair with the ready meal has continued apace. Almost 9 out of 10 UK households now buy them, despite a study published in the British Medical Journal in December finding that not one of 100 meals tested fully complied with World Health Organisation nutritional guidelines. My question is more to the tune of “why the fuck are you eating a £2.31 pack of microwaved lasagne?”
Only in the UK have I come across a concept as foreign as ‘I don’t really like food”. Hearing it from a number of people over the last four-and-a-half years it’s the closest I’ve come to understanding what that slug was going through when I sprinkled a little salt on it back at age ten. My insides turn and the notion’s rejected entirely. A friend actually said to me once that ‘eating is one of those things I have to do, or else I’d die… If I didn’t have to do it I wouldn’t waste my time on it, like taking a shit, if I didn’t have to do it, I’d do other shit.’ Not enjoying flavour is akin to saying that you don’t like listening to music, or you’re not that bothered about seeing things in colour or black and white – you’re missing out on something that can make any boring old day amazing and one to remember. “You don’t eat ‘green stuff’??? …FUCK!”
Ok, granted, this probably accounts for a very small percentage of the population and I do know a lot of people extremely passionate about food and thoroughly care about what they consume, but sadly I fear many people simply can’t afford to care enough. I know what it’s like to walk down the chicken aisle at ASDA and be torn between two packets of chicken breasts, weighing exactly the same but one being half the price of the other – cheap stuff = bad, thanks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But the fact is the economy is fucked, people are struggling, eating well is expensive, production costs are mounting and who can blame a company for trying to slip some left over horse meat into a bolognese for a population with their noses stuck up maybe a little too high? It doesn’t excuse it, but the UK would steer clear of the new horse section in ASDA’s meat aisles – guaranteed. Perhaps there’s room for us all to open up just a bit and try something different? Stop eating Cod – it’s almost GONE!!! You’re only going to deep-fry it with batter so what’s the difference? Did you salt that? WTF!?!? Why aren’t people salting shit?
There’s another side to the subject of good food being expensive. I mentioned before that 9 out of 10 UK households regularly buy ready meals – that’s a staggering figure. Our house works on a food budget of £200 per month to feed 4. Collectively we pretty much spend £50 a week on a shop which includes all the ingredients necessary to create 7 meals with leftovers for lunch. At the start of the week we each pick a day or two and write up on our calendar what we’ll be cooking, that way we have a plan for each night so there’s no last minute “what are we gonna cook?” and it allows us to budget effectively and keep our costs down whilst exploring new meals and keeping things exciting. Learning how to cook is one of the best things you can do – you have to eat, you may as well work out how to do it gooder!! So for those people that may feel like they’ve been forced into buying cheap to make ends meet, sorry, but learn some essential life skills and things won’t be so bland. FYI I have only just learned to cook over the last 2 or 3 years after taking advantage of my brother’s kitchen skills for far too long – I’m in no position to lecture, just take my advice you’ll undoubtedly be better off.
Is there a positive that can be drawn from all this? Absolutely, for it appears that some people have changed their behaviour for the better. Local butchers have experienced an increase in minced meat sales which indicates people are shifting from the “cheap meat” sections of the supermarket and heading down to their local butcher for a little education in quality. Local butchers source local meat and promote trust in their supply chain which they then pass onto consumers. Whatever scrap of remaining trust the UK had for big supermarkets was hanging from a sinewy thread of cheap horse meat, and now consumers want to know where their meal came from. Your local butcher can fill you in on where it’s from, how long it’s matured, what it’s been fed and even suggestions for what you can do with it, and although some people say this isn’t necessarily the future of meat retail many butchers haven’t felt this confident in their trade for a long while. Scarily, local butcher numbers have fallen from 30,000 to just 6,000 in the last 20 years, but this could prove a turning point back to the days of old. If we can move away from the supermarket meat aisle and invest in local butchery we’d see these numbers increase, and more importantly you’d be shovelling steak into your face and smashing home-made lasagne.
Note: figures sourced from mainly BBC news articles – I’m not a journalist, I just speak.