Horsegate and all that...

Lynda Brown - 18 February 2013

Well, three weeks into the biggest meat food scandal arguably since BSE, and it all feels like deja vu to me – same old defensive response from ministers and the Food Standards Authority; same old solution (spend millions testing after the horse has bolted to prove what we already know); same old denial that there’s anything wrong with our wonderful global industrialised food system (it’s the criminals that are to blame, not the system); same old insistence this is just an isolated case, it’s all perfectly safe (err, nearly…) and so on. The weekend’s headlines that the FSA has admitted we’ll never know if we’ve unwittingly eaten horsemeat, and a claim that Government ministers were warned in 2011 that illicit horsemeat with drug residues was entering the human food chain by a former FSA manager, tells you this nag is set to keep on running.

Horsegate is just the latest in a long line of revolting goings on in the name of food. For the Law of Averages dictates that for every food scandal that emerges, there are more festering away. The only surprise is that anyone should ever think that trucking raw beef (aka horse) around the globe, then re-trucking it back again disguised as convenience food, is not bound to be open to abuse or fraud. As Hugh Fearnley Whittingstal commented in the Times on Saturday, “meat is a very precious food. The moment we start treating it as a cheap commodity, then we end up in dark and difficult places”.

Two weeks ago, I was fizzing: what I would do with the FSA couldn’t be printed (I tried but didn’t get away with it). However, now I know that butchers are doing a roaring trade (up by 30%) I feel a lot more chirpy that the tide for real food versus the other stuff might finally be turning. For the bigger picture here is not fraud (a fact of life), or whether actually horsemeat is good to go or not, but true traceability.

The fact that we just don’t know, for example, if our schoolchildren have been eating horse in their school meals, for how long, whether it’s been contaminated with bute (that horse antibiotic banned from the food chain), and if so what the potential long term effects of this might be is all the indictment we need of our current system. As for delivering cheap food, forget it. The relentless ‘race to the bottom' that has become the norm for both supermarkets and the catering industry has ensured that each scandal costs a fortune. How much simpler and cheaper to issue ration books to buy real meat instead of propping up a system that is impossible to police and endemically unsafe.

Traceability has, rightly, always been at the heart of the organic farming philosophy, and the only form of traceability that can ever work is to keep the chain as short as possible – again, something that organic farming has pioneered and championed: box schemes, community farms, and the new innovative grower/retailer enterprises – all examples of great organic initiatives that prove that it is possible to deliver honest-to-goodness food you can truly trust. The Food For Life partnership, another visionary Soil Association initiative, aims to turn the tide of industrialised catering around for the better, and is succeeding. Already 20% of schools do know where there food comes from – and it’s not Romania.

So, it can be done. We do not have to be permanently nailed to the industrialised processed food cross, we can change it if we want. The simple solution to this particular gory mess? Seek out organic meat, or local meat you can truly trust, and to do what Joanna Blythman suggested on the radio recently, which is to always make your own beefburgers. A child of three can make them, so we really shouldn’t have any problem. Phew, job sorted. Enjoy!

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