x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Horse meat: the toughest thing to digest isn't the horse

With supermarkets under increasing pressure to deliver cheaper products and greater profits, it was only a matter of time before corners were cut.

There's only one news story here in the UK just now, and if you'll forgive the metaphor, it's threatening to run and run. I refer to the discovery of horse meat in beef products.

The scandal first broke a fortnight ago, when what were coyly described as "traces of horse DNA" were found to be present in a small selection of ready meals being purveyed by Findus, a large producer of cheap, heat-and-serve meals.

But it was soon evident that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Subsequent tests uncovered between 60 and 100 per cent horse meat in products purporting to be pure beef, not only from Findus, but in a wide range of beef products being sold by some in UK's supermarkets. The trail leading to those responsible for the contamination is a complex one, stretching back through the food-production chain to abattoirs and suppliers across Britain, the European Union and beyond.

Needless to say, the story has provided fodder for humorists. Among my favourite is the story of the man who walks into a fast food outlet and asks for a beefburger. "How would you like it?" asks the burger flipper. "I'll have five to one each way" replies the customer.

One cartoonist has a racehorse going to see a clairvoyant. "You're going on a long sea voyage" she explains. "France, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Romania ..." Meanwhile, one wag even suggested traces of seahorse DNA had been found in fisherman's pies. Beneath all the hilarity, the issue is a serious one with far-reaching consequences. Furthermore, it has struck the food industry's weakest point - the question of ingredients. And, some would say, it's about time, too.

The UK has seen a seismic change in its eating patterns in recent decades. Back when I was a lad, the idea of rustling up a meal in less time than it takes to peel a potato would have been unthinkable, not to say impossible. Meals were prepared from locally sourced ingredients, purchased from quaint old-fashioned purveyors (such as butchers) and prepared with skill and attention. The only accessories required were a stove, an oven and a minimum of half an hour. You could have conquered worlds on my mum's steak and kidney pie.

Sadly, though many of us still have stoves and ovens, we no longer have half an hour. Harassed parents, often both holding down a job to make ends meet, become all too accustomed to merely slinging a pre-prepared carton of pre-cooked food covered in clingfilm into the microwave at the end of the working day. "Ping cuisine" (named after the noise made by the appliance to alert you when the contents have been sufficiently nuked) is now ubiquitous in our daily lives.

And with supermarkets under increasing pressure to deliver cheaper products (and greater profits), it was only a matter of time before corners were cut and criminal elements moved in. "Economy beefburgers - six for a pound!" Never mind what's in them, or how it's even possible to produce anything edible at such prices. In any case, with the nation's collective palate shot through by years of cheap, mass-produced muck, they'll never be able to taste the difference anyway. But now we have, and the unfolding scandal is threatening to overwhelm both the food industry and the government. With thousands of products being tested for "meat authenticity", there aren't enough laboratories or technicians to process the samples.

Yet although the spectre of contamination is a real one (many domestic horses are routinely given the equine painkiller bute, which can be harmful to humans), the crisis facing domestic retailers is also a cultural one. Brits don't eat horses. And while many of them happily sample the delicacy when abroad, they cling to a long-held conviction that horses are for riding and petting, but not ingesting.

The official body deputised to sort out this unsavoury mess, the Food Standards Agency, has attempted to assuage panic by pronouncing that even if the offending products were comprised entirely of bute-impregnated horsemeat, you'd still have to eat up to 600 burgers at a single sitting to ingest sufficient levels to suffer health complications. But it has done little to restore consumer confidence. The full extent of the scandal has yet to unravel. Meanwhile, I'm taking no chances. I just looked inside our freezer compartment to check some Findus beef lasagnes I recently bought. And they're off.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins