“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.”
Fascinating facts about the Italians: while St Valentine’s Day is the day for lovers, from 17th-24th February there is Casual Love Week, a seven-day celebration of the single state, supported by restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfasts across the country. Secondly, as a nation, they eat an average of 900g of horse meat per person per year. Both of these facts may surprise us because the Italians have a reputation for being rather loveable. And from the British perspective, casual sex is one thing but eating horses is just not nice.
When it comes to taboo food stuffs in general and the PR horse meat scandal in British supermarkets in particular, however, perspective is everything. The eating habits of some of our neighbours highlight the differences between us. If you walked into a supermarket in the Netherlands, Belgium, France or Switzerland you could find horse meat for sale from the butcher’s department. It is also consumed in parts of Austria, Polynesia, Serbia and Slovenia and the French-speaking provinces of Canada, but its sale is illegal in the United States. Except, that is, during World War II when it was served to the civilian population as a cheaper alternative to beef.
It is not just eating horse flesh that bothers us, however. Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s data shows that pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, when Waitrose found that their beef meatballs had been contaminated with pork, the products were immediately withdrawn and similar foods added to the list of necessary tests required by the Food Standards Agency. Eating pork by mistake may not present a problem to some people but to many the inadvertent consumption of pork or beef can cause serious distress because of their religious beliefs; because of their perspective. So, although as a nation we have an aversion to eating our equine friends, we appear to have as much of an aversion to being misled.
The word ‘transparency’ has been used a lot over recent banking, financial and processed food crises but the British public does need to know the reality of the situation in order to make a considered judgement. Sometimes the truth is unpalatable: it is not just horses from Rumania or Ireland that end their days in the food chain. But consumers are more likely to prefer honesty to deceit; preferring a long hard look at their reflection rather than smoke and mirrors. Supermarkets have a unique relationship with their customers and no one imagines that food contamination was done knowingly, but if the pursuit of low prices is their only ambition, people have to know that the risks increase at the cheaper end of the food chain.
The Master Butchers Association would do well to capitalise on the current level of awareness, perhaps bringing in celebrity chefs to roll out a campaign for cooking with cheaper cuts of British meat under the banner ‘know where your food comes from’. The public’s perception of the value of food is what needs to change if such a scandal is not to be repeated.