Tuesday 19 February 2013

Horsemeat in the food chain: seriously, why the long face?

In my day job, I have done virtually nothing else for a full month now apart from answering questions about horsemeat.

Those who have knowingly eaten it assure me that horsemeat is delicious but, like most English people, I always pass those boucheries chevalines in Paris with a shudder of distaste. Which is entirely illogical, given that I don’t even like horses.

Many other columnists have lined up to opine that we are in the midst of a huge crisis caused by our addiction to cheap food, fostered by those evil supermarkets who are constantly driving down standards and screwing their suppliers. The answer, clearly, is to pay more, eat better and support your friendly, local butcher and farmer.

Even though the roof is kept over my head by Britain’s leading high street retailer of frozen food, I am personally delighted that good independent butchers have enjoyed a boost to their trade as a result of all this nonsense.

But please be assured that it is 99.99% nonsense, and that the problem is not so much processed food as manufactured hysteria. Yes, a small handful of rogues have evidently been passing off horsemeat as beef to some unsuspecting customers. But, as the food safety specialists never tire of explaining, this won’t actually do you any harm.

But what, scream the hysterics, if the horses had been treated with the veterinary painkiller called bute? Yes, the Government’s chief medical officer wearily explained, that might indeed stand an outside chance of making you ill if you ate 500 or 600 bute-laced horse burgers every day. Not that any trace of bute has been found in any UK products tested to date.

My client – Iceland Foods, since you ask – withdrew and destroyed a couple of batches of their burgers after the Food Safety Authority in Ireland detected small traces of horse DNA, amounting to one tenth of one per cent of the product. That particular test was not accredited for use in the UK and samples from the same batches were immediately sent to two independent laboratories for confirmation. No trace of horse DNA could be found.

All Iceland’s other beef products have now been tested and similarly proved to contain no rogue horse or pig meat. So they said so. Cue howls of protest that the company is not grovelling apologetically for something it has not done.

It’s a rum food crisis in which no one has died or, so far as we know, even been made ever so slightly poorly. As catastrophes go, it’s the equivalent of the Titanic’s head chef running out of lemon juice for the mousseline sauce to accompany the poached salmon in the first class dining room.

Meanwhile a Titanic-sized death toll has been exacted by mismanagement of the NHS in mid-Staffordshire and yet that, bizarrely, is the story that has proved pretty much a one day wonder.

I am old enough to remember what food shopping was like before the big supermarkets became dominant and the important truth is that it was rubbish.

There has been a revolution in the variety, quality, freshness and value for money of the food available to us in my lifetime that has been driven by supermarkets and is hugely advantageous to us all.

Yes, I also buy from independent shops and farmers’ markets because I am lucky enough to be able to afford to do so, but I have no hesitation in doing the bulk of my shopping in supermarkets – including Iceland – and nor should anyone else.

If you’re going to get hung up on microscopic quantities of DNA, brace yourself for next week’s shock disclosure that your raspberry yogurt almost certainly contains a trace of banana.

Please also remember that your local butcher’s handmade burgers stand every chance of containing minuscule traces of other animals’ DNA. And, unless he washes his hands with the obsessive dedication of a serial killer who has successfully evaded justice, quite possibly human DNA too.

I really hope that some enterprising tabloid does run a test for that, so that we may look forward to the next stage of the crisis: Britain rocked by revelations of rampant cannibalism among the middle classes.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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