It’s all the rage, it’s the equine burger!

The public outrage about beef burgers containing horsemeat is entirely predictable. A single Tesco’s ‘beef burger’ contained 29% horsemeat, and (of course) it’s OK to eat cows but not horses in Britain. This blatant hypocrisy is beyond the understanding of the average person. Meat eaters will eat cows, chickens, pigs and sheep without a second thought, but definitely not a horse (at least not knowingly). And yet just over the Channel in France it’s a different story. Is this just a fundamental cultural divide or something deeper? It is conveniently forgotten that during the food shortages of World War Two a lot of horsemeat (clearly identified as such) was openly sold and consumed by the British.[1] After the war the “we don’t eat horses” taboo quickly re-established itself, and although people won’t eat horsemeat here, we kill horses and export their meat. (There are 3 British slaughterhouses licensed to kill horses.) The irony is that a significant amount of horsemeat, and numerous other illegal substances, have found their way into UK meat products (especially highly processed items like burgers and sausages) for many years. On the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘You & Yours’ (16/1/2013) the Director of the Association of British Meat Processors (his parents must be so proud) stated that how the latest scandal had happened was “a mystery” and that “the great majority of meat and meat products are safe to eat”. Oh, really?

The meat industry is a huge, dirty business. Dodgy and downright illegal activities are inevitable. A few years ago it was revealed that vast quantities of condemned meat (unsuitable for human consumption) was being sold to unscrupulous food manufacturers. One company transformed waste chicken, costing only £25 per ton, into food that was sold for up to £1,792 per ton.[2] But surely, as is always claimed by the meat industry, all the latest regulations, traceability, and safeguards will prevent this happening now? Well, the latest horsemeat in burgers scandal was discovered by Irish food safety officials, the DNA testing that picked it up is hardly used in the UK. The simple fact is that deliberate adulteration, and outright fraud in the meat industry will continue as long as people keep buying their products. But what about the “paper trail that ensures traceability”? In ‘Fast Food Nation’, Eric Schlosser points out that a single burger can contain meat from as many as a hundred different carcasses. It is impossible to check or regulate the complexity of the numerous supply chains involved, and there are the wonderful mystery ingredients described as “filler products from abroad”. Criminal deception is bad enough, but the UK meat industry can openly sell infected meat without any problem at all. A BBC Radio 4 ‘Face the Facts’ investigation (“The Silent Epidemic”, broadcast 16/1/2013) revealed that about 65% of all chickens sold in the UK are infected with
Campylobacter. This bacteria is responsible for most food poisoning cases in Britain. Of course, if any of this chicken had even traces of horse DNA it would be immediately withdrawn.

In the last ten years 75% of all new human diseases have originated from animals.[3] Prominent examples such as swine flu and bird flu highlight factory farming as the primary cause. Intensive methods are the core problem, but the enormous vested interest of the global meat industry will ensure that new regulations are minimal, and that most people won’t change their behaviour. The current horsemeat story will produce a dip in the sale of cheap burgers, but previous food scandals clearly demonstrate that this will be only a temporary blip. Obviously, there is a very simple solution to all of this, but until meat eaters get some common sense or a moral perspective then nothing will change.

Throughout history many human societies have had close equine links. Unfortunately, most of these haven’t been very beneficial to the horses involved. In warfare the horse has featured prominently, and millions have died as a result. It is generally thought that World War Two was a highly mechanised conflict, but horses were one of the main means of
transport for many armies including the Nazis as they spread across Europe in 1940, and the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1941.[4] In horse racing thoroughbreds can be valued in the millions, but virtually every carthorse, pony or prized stud will end up at the knacker’s yard. Yes, the odd famous
racehorse will be put out to pasture, but the harsh reality is that at the end of their productive lives, horses are treated exactly the same as every other species that humans use and abuse.

Paul Freestone

[1] Hart-Davis, Adam. Flogging A Dead Horse. BBC Radio 4 (8/12/2004)
[2] Stokes, Paul. ‘Traders guilty of plot to sell condemned meat.’ The Daily Telegraph (22/12/2000)
[3] Dawkins, Marian. “Why Animals Matter.” Oxford SciBar talk. Port Mahon, St Clements, Oxford. (18/10/2012).
[4] Overy, Richard. Russia’s War. Penguin.

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