Well, I’ve had a very restful almost-month off from blogging (hah!) but holidays can’t last forever, and it’s time to get back in the saddle… An apposite metaphor, as it happens, as the foodie world has been up in arms this week about the horse meat burger scandal, affecting economy ‘beef’ burgers for sale in several British and Irish supermarkets.
Let me start by saying, I don’t share many of my compatriots’ ‘shock-horror’ reactions at the idea of eating horse. I’ve eaten horse meat in the past, and as it happens, it’s really rather good! Horse meat is a perfectly normal part of the diet of many of our continental neighbours, and, when raised considerately, transported thoughtfully, slaughtered humanely, and inspected and prepared carefully, really presents no greater ethical problem than eating any other animal.
Yes, I’ve heard the cries of protest, that horses are sensitive, inquisitive, sociable animals. So, I’m sorry to tell you, are cattle, sheep, and yes, even pigs and chickens.
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Why then the upset about the adulteration of economy ‘beefburgers’ with horse meat? If it’s perfectly sound, healthy meat, why the howls of protest? Surely we should be encouraging the incorporation of a cheap, healthy protein source into low-cost products?
Well, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that!
First, there are the cultural considerations, of course. We don’t ‘traditionally’ eat horse in Britain & Ireland. The ancient Celts may even have worshipped them. Whatever the root of it, for most Britons horses are pets and working animals, not food animals – much closer to the way we perceive dogs than the way we consider cattle, and we have a strong, reflex, cultural taboo against eating them. Of course, that doesn’t make their meat unsound, or unsafe, we just prefer not to eat them, in much the way that some people prefer not to eat shellfish. We need to take a deep breath and realise that this view is pure cultural preference, nothing more.
Secondly, it’s fair to concede that there are some reasonable concerns about the welfare of horses in the European food chain. Often kept tethered or hobbled during life, they can then be transported by road over long distances under less than ideal conditions – overcrowded, and without food and water – before being slaughtered in a process more adapted to cattle, which may fail fully to take into consideration their particular needs as highly-adapted ‘flight’ animals.
There are, of course, equivalently serious concerns with many of our food animals – the over-bred over-producing black and white dairy cow who in many cases can no longer meet or control her own metabolic state and requirements, resulting in chronic stress and ill-health; industrially-reared pigs kept in denuded, overcrowded environments, on mesh floors, with a legacy of aggression, lameness and respiratory diseases; and who could forget the iconic battery hen, whose fate may or may not be improved these days by the introduction of ‘enriched’ small group cages. The bottom line is that we treat many of the animals whose lives are lived to feed us less than entirely well. While the welfare of horses before and during slaughter can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, we need to accept that they are hardly a special case.
Thirdly, and most relevantly here, really, is the question of adulteration. The horse meat was not declared as an ingredient in the burgers concerned (neither was pork, which was also detected as a contaminant in many of the beef burgers examined in the FSAI findings). It’s quite plausible that the immediate manufacturers of the burgers (the Irish plant squishing them into burger shapes and packing them into a variety of wrappers) had no idea it was there, since it’s likely that the majority of the ingredients received at their premises would have been less than entirely recognisable. I gather that the leading theory is that the horse protein entered the production process as ‘filler’ – mechanically recovered meat from carcasses which bears an awfully close resemblance to the ‘pink slime’ of recent North American food-panic. ’Economy’ grade burgers are permitted to contain just under 50% recognisable carcasse meat – the sort that can be removed from the bones with knives during processing – ‘fillers’, ‘extenders’, rusk and so on make up the other half.
The filler in these burgers may very well have been imported from a third country (so could the rest of the beef, for that matter, and the burgers will still have been labelled ‘Made in Ireland’, which is its very own joke on the question of provenance!). If it was, then we can hope that the horse meat came through the official slaughter and inspection processes and had been duly found to be fit for human consumption. Let’s give the manufacturers of the filler the benefit of the doubt and assume someone accidentally ‘slipped’ and a horse carcass made it onto the ‘beef’ MRM line. Of course, one might have to wonder how many horse carcasses were ‘slipping’ into the beef filler line to give an estimated 29% total composition of horse meat in a burger required to be very nearly 50% ‘real’ beef. Mmm. Incidentally, the ‘real’ beef percentage is permitted to includes fat and sinew ‘naturally associated’ with the lean muscle tissue. I’m going to bet the people doing the carcass trimming aren’t getting paid to leave any of that behind!
The food safety concerns only really start to stack up if we consider that the horse meat may not have come in via a licensed slaughter and inspection process. We do in fact have a small number of licensed horse slaughterhouses in the UK and Ireland – their meat is exported, for the most part. [Interesting to note, is that it may not be incorporated into pet food intended for sale in the UK - which is required only to include meat and meat by-products from animals passed fit for human consumption, and which are traditionally consumed in the country of sale.]
For some years now, all horses in the EU have been required to have horse ‘passports’. These identify the individual horse, usually by a combination of described markings and hair-coat characteristics (though sometimes via microchip), and contain a variety of important details about the horse and its health status, including vaccinations.
There is a page in the passport which contains a declaration that the horse is not intended for human consumption. Some horse owners immediately endorse this declaration for their animals, presumably on emotional grounds, but some, more pragmatically, wait until the issue becomes relevant. The relevance is one of veterinary care, and administration of medicines in particular.
A number of the veterinary medicines in common use in horses – especially in the UK – are specifically prohibited from use in animals intended for human consumption, because of their potential to cause significant ill-health in humans should they enter the food chain. The cannot be administered to horses unless they have been declared to be barred from the food chain. Some are carcinogens – substances that may cause cancers – some can cause blood dyscrasias – abnormalities of blood cell production which can be irreversible and sometimes fatal. Potentially nasty stuff. There is undoubtedly an argument for these medicines being withdrawn from use in horses full-stop, however this needs to be balanced against their genuine value and utility in maintaining the health, welfare, and working lives of scores of horses whose entry into the human food chain was never in question.
It’s often noted that the system of horse passports is a bit ‘soft’, with multiple issuing authorities – in particular, since there’s no central register of identification marks, there is actually relatively little to prevent an owner ‘mislaying’ a horse’s passport and procuring a clean replacement.
Should – and I think this is unlikely – the horse meat in the burger have been slaughtered ‘irregularly’ in Ireland and not subjected to the normal pre-slaughter and post-mortem health inspections, and checking of documentation, then this would open the possibility of entry of unsound or pharmaceutically-contaminated meat into the human food chain.
Actually, it’s quite likely that the horse-meat burger scandal presented no risk to health – or, should I say, no additional risk to health compared to these economy ‘beef’ burgers if they’d been manufactured according to their specification. The more processed your food, the greater the supermarket buyers’ downward pressure on costs, the more links in the chain, the more ingredients in the list, the more hands (quite literally) it has passed through on its way to you, the greater the chances both for accidental contamination, and of intentional adulteration in pursuit of a profit.
This is the crux, for me. Highly processed, cheap meat products like these economy burgers are just plain nasty. They taste nasty. They’re nasty to your health. And they’re undoubtedly nasty for the poor animals that have been reared to a price point eventually to be minced up into them.
I make little apology for my view that we should not be selling and eating food like this. Yes, I’m aware that there are people out there – elderly or disabled, living on benefits – for whom these highly processed economy meat products are the ‘best’ they can afford. I’m afraid I don’t believe that we have a right to eat meat every meal, or every day. In fact, we’d all – even those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it if we want to – be healthier if we chose not to, never mind the benefits to the environment and animal welfare which would result from fewer animals being raised with greater care. If you can’t afford, or can’t source, a recognisable piece of an animal that has been raised with care and slaughtered with consideration, you should not be eating meat today. Not all good meat is expensive, there’s a very long tradition, in the UK as everywhere else, in making great food from bargain cuts. Yes, I appreciate that there’s a huge deficit in cooking skills, particularly among my generation, which means many wouldn’t know where to start if presented with a brisket, a shin of beef, or a breast of lamb – all quite marvellous, cheap, real healthy cuts of meat – but surely *this* is what we need to address, rather than filling the gap by selling people adulterated, industrially produced convenience-papp in brightly coloured cardboard cartons. We should not be eating this. No one should be eating this. It’s just nasty.
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