Horses for Courses

Meat (Photo credit: Divine Harvester)

It’s an old saying – “horses for courses” – meaning that for every horse there is a suitable course for it to run…but it has taken on a new meaning here in the UK recently and I find myself wondering about it in the context of which course it should be eaten in as part of a meal.

You may be aware of the news stories that horse meat has been found in numerous products in our supermarkets. The news first broke a couple of weeks ago that Tesco were selling burgers with traces of horse meat in them. That quickly changed to burgers with “significant quantities” of horse meat in them. Then it wasn’t just Tesco, but most of the other supermarkets as well who were selling meat products containing horse meat. Food was removed from supermarkets up and down the country because the reason that it was “contaminated” with meat from non-beef sources.

There are hundreds of jokes on the internet about it – “I don’t mind Asda burgers but I prefer My Lidl Pony” being one of my favourites, alongside “Tesco are removing their veggie burgers from the shelves because they suspect they contain traces of uniquorn” – but there are some really serious issues here.

Firstly, we are being peddled food products labelled as “beef” that quite clearly isn’t beef at all. The latest company to admit this is Findus who today have informed us that their beef lasagne contains up to 100% horse meat. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT HORSE MEAT?? So, no beef then? How can they sell something that it quite clearly isn’t? If it says it is beef, then it should BE beef. There are laws against that aren’t there?

Secondly, how can these companies not know that their beef supplies have been compromised and they have been purchasing horse meat all along? Maybe they knew about it and because it was a cheaper meat they thought they could get away with substituting it? I don’t know, but I’m asking the question about them cheating their customers.

Thirdly, if these companies didn’t know they were getting horse meat instead of beef, what else is in their supplies that they don’t know about? What quality controls are in place to make sure the meat isn’t contaminated with unlicensed drugs (animal antibiotics or steroids for example) or other contaminants that we don’t know about? How can we be sure that the animals have been slaughtered humanely and hygienically? The short answer is that we can’t.

All that to one side – that we have been fobbed off with alternative meat to that which is labelled, possibly contaminated by drugs and other substances and from unchecked sources – what is it about horse meat that makes us Brits so squeamish?

It is well known that horse meat is eaten widely on the Continent and in other areas of the world, and history teaches us that horse meat was eaten here too when economic times were tough. So why don’t we eat it now? Is it because we are so fond of our horses as pets, or as sources of gambling income? But not everyone can afford to keep a horse as a pet, and not everyone bets on the gee-gees, so why don’t we see them as a food source? We eat rabbits, and the same argument could be applied there – they are most definitely domestic pets!! – yet we generally don’t get that squeamish about eating them.

Maybe there’s something in the name we use for it. We call cow meat “beef”, pig meat is “pork” and sheep meat is “mutton”. We call chicken, ducks, geese “poultry” and so on, so what if part of our squeamishness comes from the name “horse meat”? Would we be more accepting if it was called something else? Cheval, perhaps.

I saw a TV phone in this morning and they were discussing the latest in the horse meat story, and they were asking people to phone in to say whether they would still eat the 8 for £1 burgers if they were labelled as horse meat, and by and large (although it was only a small sample of people who expressed their opinion) the answer was “yes”. As quality food is getting to the stage where most people can’t afford it and rely on ready meals to feed their families, then maybe we do have to address the issue of consuming alternative meats such as horse. If it is cheaper and leaner than traditional beef, then why not make it widely available to everyone?  My own feelings are that if I were to purchase a ready-made lasagne from a budget range and it was labelled as horse meat then I would think twice about it. If there was a softer name for it I probably wouldn’t mind and would tuck in with gusto. In fact, I probably have already done so thinking it was beef not so long ago!

It does raise the question about the cost of “real” food: we are being told to eat more healthily, cut down the fat, the salt and sugar in our food, to eat fresh and not rely on processed food etc. Which is great and noble, but in these days where families are cash- and time-strapped, how are we supposed to do that day in day out?

We have seen a 400% rise in the number of people who use food banks in the last two years alone. Those food banks don’t generally have a massive glut of fresh meat and fresh vegetables, they tend to be made up of processed and convenience foods such as the ones that we are talking about here. It makes me wonder what has happened to all that food that the supermarkets have removed from their shelves in the last couple of weeks. I wouldn’t bet it has gone to feed people in genuine need, horse meat or not.

My final point about this food debacle is that it has highlighted just how far we have come in the space of a generation and our attitudes towards food, families and home economics. We can no longer rely on our high street butcher for our weekly meat purchases because the supermarkets have priced them out of most people’s budgets (and now we know how!); there is a huge gap in our home economic knowledge of how to make fresh and healthy meals quickly and on a tight budget (they managed in the Second World War, why can’t we now?) and despite the glut of cookery books available to us from a whole plethora of celebrity chefs, we STILL don’t know to make the best out of what we have available to us. The cookery skills needed to make decent home-made burgers are sadly lacking. We know how to confit duck legs for example, but bubble and squeak or toad in the hole? Forget it.

So, to finish, I heard today that the boss of Findus was skittish about going into the TV studio to be interviewed about his company. Apparently he had to be blindfolded, spun around three times and backed into the studio he was that nervous!

We’re having spaghetti bolog-neighs for tea tonight.

Your comments, as always, are welcome.





6 thoughts on “Horses for Courses”

  1. I’ve read about the scandal in the BBC News app on my Kindle Fire. I can’t help but wonder how this whole thing actually happened. If it happend in the States, there would be a major Congressional investigational into the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of the food supply. We do use horse meat for canned dog food in some instances; I don’t buy it. My dogs eat dry food. I am rather squimish about horse meat, probably because it’s a cultural thing. I see them as domestic animals used as pets and transport. I have no trouble with other foods the French it–rabbit, esgarot, frogs legs, since I grew up eating them or acquired a taste for them, sort of like clams or oysters. But I draw the line at horses. I also don’t like venison. I grew up with that too but I don’t like the taste. I think some of it has to do with the names we give food. Our English names for meat do come from the French and our animal names are English Saxon, I think. We keep the two separate. It’s a psychological thing. So much of our live is wrapped up in our culture, it’s hard to ignore the part culture plays in our reaction to this. It plays a HUGE part.


    1. I agree with you – our culture and our language play a huge part in our attitudes towards food. And you’re right of course, we should be launching an urgent enquiry as to how this has happened in the first place. It stinks!!


  2. The news stories are amusing when you consider that in 2003 horse meat was found in salami, in 2007 a survey supported Gordon Ramsey serving it in restaurants and (despite the taboo) it is a sweet, low fat, high protein alternative. Using the relationship we have with horses as a reason not to eat them is a nonsense too. Most of us rarely see the things.
    I would eat it if offered.
    The subterfuge does bug me though.


  3. It’s not subterfuge…it’s lack of integrity. The restaurants are passing off one kind of meat as another. Bait and switch is what we call it in the United States. More and more, I prefer to cook my own food from scratch. However, knowing whether or not our grain is GMO or natural is so difficult. I don’t feel like we can trust where our food is coming from or what it is. So sad.

    I try to buy organic as much as possible, but it’s a lot more expensive.

    Good blog.


  4. I’ve heard about this and don’t know what to think, other than I would be very upset if I thought I was eating beef and it was horse. In the US horse meat is definitely just NOT eaten, although I don’t know why.


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