Monday, February 11, 2013


I shall be returning to my series of postings about the BBC in due course, but for now I cannot forbear sticking in my two-penn’orth on Britain’s latest food scandal. For many years, I have viewed the food industry with grave mistrust. No field in which profit is to be made ever escapes corruption and fraud, and the profits to be made from food are among the highest. All the supermarkets grew so rich and powerful by leading with food, in particular processed food, and foregrounding its appeal to the attraction of shopping “all under one roof” that such outlets claimed from the first: convenience. The price of convenience, as shoppers are now learning, is a systematic cutting of corners.

In our house, we long ago cut our consumption of processed foods to a minimum. Only in a restaurant can we have inadvertently imbibed horseflesh since long, long ago. Speaking for myself, I can report that it is thirty years since I gave up eating burgers. Somebody (I don’t recall who) asked me back then if I knew how burgers were made. The answer was: “they pulp the whole cow”. This seemed to me to be so incontrovertibly true that I foreswore burgers thereafter, with the sole exception of Hamburger Hamlet on Larchmont Boulevard, Los Angeles, where the composition of the offerings, I am persuaded, is uniquely impeccable.

Hmmm, delicious ...

More recently, a phrase of Jonathan Meades’ coining has stayed with me. Describing the generalised filling used in so many commercial “convenience” dishes that claim to contain meat, he used the term “abattoir slurry”. It is as convincing an aperçu as it is repellent. I paid several visits to a nearby abattoir as a youngster and, while I dare say that regulations have been much tightened since, the casual nature of the slaughtering and quartering that I observed made me wonder how sharp the distinction was between “fit to eat” and “not fit to eat”. My mother used to buy horsemeat from the butcher for the family dog. It was marked with a blue dye and labelled “not for human consumption”. The dog ate it with relish. Maybe we would have done too.

In those far-off days, there was no regulation of much of anything and transactions at every level of society were conducted on a basis of trust: “a gentleman’s word is his bond”. My paternal grandfather did all his business on the shake of a hand. No contract ever needed to be entered into. He settled every receipt within 24 hours and expected everyone else to do the same. I don’t think he was often disappointed.

My grandfather was in the boot and shoe trade. In the food business, there was far less overt concern about standards than there is now and perhaps there was far less need for such concern. Sell-by dates, lists of ingredients, analyses of content in terms of fat, fibre and so on – these things were far in the future. Common sense told you when something had been kept too long to be wisely consumed. On the other hand, many foodstuffs went untouched for months and months because housewives had larders, pantries and store-cupboards. And because perishables were seasonal, all kinds of techniques were developed to preserve what we called “the goodness” of the various food items.

Slaughter-house scene

At the same time, the popular press did not go in for “food scares” most weeks, as they have done at least since the millennium. Withering us has become a favoured technique to boost sales: for example, the daily glass of wine that was “beneficial for the heart” last week is “ruinous for the liver” this week.

Attitudes were pretty hard-nosed, though. I think most people accepted that the limited range of processed foods – sausages, pork pies, ice cream – were apt to be used by manufacturers as a dumping ground for various kinds of perfectly digestible offal. And lord knows what went into such confections that came in jars, like fish paste and potted meat, that were presumably stiff with primitive preserving agents.

The Food Standards Agency was only set up thirteen years ago but at least we now have regulation, professional testing and controls. We also have huge scope for backhanders and scams. Ministers and food processors are falling over themselves to assure us that the issue is “mislabelling”, not food safety. I am not so sure. The horsemeat market is far less regulated than, say, the trade in beef – which naturally is one of the reasons why the food industry (both mainstream and cowboy) has tolerated the horsemeat market. But a free-for-all in a market where testing is minimal and tracing sources virtually non-existent is itself a food safety issue. In The Guardian on Saturday, the estimable commentator on food commerce Felicity Lawrence – her book Not on the Label is required reading – described an industry “in which live animals are transported vast distances across borders for slaughter, before being stripped down to constituent parts to be shipped back again in blocks of frozen off-cuts that may be stored for months on end before being ground down to unrecognisable ingredients in our everyday meals”. It’s hardly an appetising prospect.

A horse not in the best of condition – evidently this one was nursed back to health

Let’s set aside the issue that horsemeat has been sold as beef, itself a criminal deception punishable by severe penalties. Horsemeat may well be perfectly fit for human consumption but only if it is in fine condition. If you have been unwittingly feasting on some derelict and diseased old donkey, purchased cheaply from a Romanian tinker several months ago and rendered without expertise or care into bite-sized chunks in some filthy shed in mittelEurop, you surely have grounds for concern.

Moreover, we already know that across Ireland, both south and north, thousands of the horses traditionally kept by inhabitants of that island have been abandoned since the onset of the recession. It would hardly be surprising if some were sold for processing and indeed if the many starving nags roaming wild were rounded up to make a fast buck.

You may say that horse is merely meat, just like beef and pork and lamb, but animals bred for the table are (in theory, anyway) unlikely to have been imbibing chemicals that will do you harm. At least any medication introduced into them (if so done with official blessing) will have been tested to ensure that it will cause no ill effects to humans. Horses, which were not formally bred as foodstuff, will have had no such scruples applied to the administration of their medicaments. And indeed a horse doctor is a proverbial rogue in popular mythology.

It may be that many of the myriad cases of cancer of the stomach, bowel and other organs of digestion recorded in the modern era are untraceably caused by the consumption of unfit meat by-products. The health experts have been telling us for a long time that a diet heavy on meat tends to be carcinogenic, but when they talk of “meat” they certainly mean properly regulated and wholesome meat. If meat products are unregulated and untraceable, those who carelessly release them into the food chain need have no fear of being found out and hence suffering the consequences if the population is made ill or worse by what it consumes.

And of course, this issue of traceability speaks to the modern mania for outsourcing. If enterprises keep their processes under one roof, control and responsibility is a simple matter. Farm out the supply, the methodology, the packaging and everything else and pretty soon the scope for error and abuse opens chasms in every direction.

Recent television news bulletins have featured vox pops of people reckoning not to know what the fuss is about and saying that the lasagne or meatballs they buy have always been “delicious”, even if they were indeed composed of horsemeat. Well of course, most people interviewed in vox pops are irredeemably stupid and, in every sense, have no taste.

From a Shippams paste advert of the 1950s

But disguising meat to make it palatable is as old as cooking itself. That’s the whole point of curries and all such spiced dishes. The processed food industry has learned from Asian cuisine. Smother the main ingredient in monosodium glutamate and it hardly matters any more what constitutes the main ingredient. Wikipedia lists 66 recognised food additives, and that’s just the ones whose names begin with the letter A. Making gunk taste like ambrosia has been the food industry’s mission since it began.

Even sophisticates get suckered into innocently eating that which they might not chose to eat. We once clocked an elderly American couple, clearly seasoned travellers both, in a hotel restaurant on the West Indian island of Dominica. They were each tucking into a plateful of mountain chicken. We felt perfectly certain that they had no idea that mountain chicken is the local name for frogs.

Well, we only have ourselves to blame if we consume unthinkingly. On the other hand, children are fed unthinkingly and thereby acquire the habit of relying on food that tastes of chemicals rather than natural flavours. One can protect oneself and one’s household by growing all one’s own vegetables and fruit and keeping chickens and other domestic livestock for home consumption (provided one has the stomach and the resources to slaughter one’s lambs and pigs and preserve their carcasses). But even that self-sufficiency is no guarantee against genetically modified seeds and spores getting into one’s crops, wild creatures spreading infection into one’s livestock and pesticides blowing in from neighbouring farms. The trouble is that no man is an island and the surrounding seas are infested with sharks.