the real thing that we’re missing with the horse for beef swap is…

…that nobody picked it up by tasting the difference. Even at 100% horse.

NB not a post for committed vegetarians ๐Ÿ˜‰

where you're supposed to start with a beef lasagne
where you’re supposed to start with a beef lasagne (OK so they’re actually dairy cows)

It’s a rum old world, eh? One upon a time people knew what beef tasted like. I’ve knowingly eaten horse in France because I don’t have any hangups about it, and while I can see the generic big herbivore similarity it isn’t that close – much leaner and a stronger taste than beef.

Nowadays we eat an awful lot of ‘mechanically recovered meat’ which is the processed to look like real meat. Take a look at Tesco sliced ham in packets. Looks real enough, apart from the occasional few mm hole where an air bubble in the process shatters the illusion. They even work hard enough to make it look like there is structure and differences in the regions of the ham, rather than the universal pink slime favoured in the fast food trade.

Industrially processed food is crap. It doesn’t have to be for fundamental reasons, but it is crap for economic reasons. It favours the greedy and the money-grabbing, because it anonymises the product time and time again. Every time you test humans on the test

What would you do if you knew nobody was watching

You get the answer – anything to make life easier, make more money and to hell with concern for the health and safety of our fellow humans or abstract notions like animal welfare. Gordon Gekko doesn’t just occupy Wall Street – Greed is Good runs throughout business where suppliers don’t know and see their customers. This is just what you get if you Manage By Objectives rather than manage your firm by Values – you incentivise profit objectives, and you get it.

Meat being of highest perceived value gets the most adulterated because that’s where the profit margin is. It’s not the only reconstituted product – I was intrigued to read in Fresh that baby carrots were pieces of full grown carrot sanded down ๐Ÿ˜‰

Just a really fit cow, really ;)
Look at it as just a really fit cow;)

In the long supply chains favoured by cheap industrial food, there is room for abuse all along the chain, from the US meat processors who can’t be bothered to butcher their carcasses properly so they wash them in ammonia to render the shit less hazardous to human health to the anonymous horse for beef swappers somewhere along the line to Findus,ย  Tesco, Aldi et al.

The trilemma – You can have it cheap.You can have it good. You can have it as it says on the tin.

– but only one or two of those at a time, never all three. In all the hyperventilating and bizarre conspiracy theories, nobody has stopped to ask the simple question

why the hell did nobody notice that the beef is a bit funny in this lasagne/burger whatever?

The answer, sadly, is that very little industrial chow tastes of much, and very rarely does it taste of anything in particular. This is because the long supply chains mean that things aren’t fresh when they get to us, so much of what gives something taste has broken down, and the extensive mixing and grinding up makes what taste is left an amorphous average.

Industrially raised meat starts off wrong because it does stupid things. You’ll observe the cows in the picture above are on grass, which is how humans have run cows for centuries. Most of the cows raised nowadays are fed on corn derived feed, often in massive feedlots like this one. You don’t get pictures of cows in cornfields because they never evolved to do that, and pasture fed cows taste better in terms of beef and milk products.

The French still know that, insisting that Camembert AOC has to be pasture fed. So industrial food doesn’t exactly start off with the finest ingredients selected for their taste. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong in that if people want to buy cheap meat, but the fact it has little significant flavour makes substitution harder to observe. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten a fast food burger, but I don’t recall it tasting particularly of beef. The Ermine dislikes relish and despises mustard, so the usual way of making fast food taste of something, ie to slather on sugary chemicals isn’t open to me.

We have become so deracinated that much of our food is a step up from baby food. It’s been minced and ground and cut with fillers and pumped full of water and artificial taste improvers. To be honest if you’re going to eat industrial meat, perhaps it would be better to have it grown in a lab, rather than trekking the carcass thousands of miles from one part of the long supply chain to another.

You, the consumer, can do something about this

Don’t want to eat horse without knowing it? Stop being such a cheapskate. Meat is a piece of an animal’s body, and it should look like one.

I knew it as a pig
I knew it as a pig

And you should know what your carnivorous treat looks and tastes like.

I had some of this last night
I had some of this last night

Don’t eat it as burgers, or Mickey D’s or ready meals that can hide a multitude of sins. Avoid mince unless you get it from a butcher that you can trust; in the past they used to make it on the premises.In fact generally, avoid long supply chains, that means supermarkets, fast food, industrially produced food. Demand that your meat looks like a piece of animal.

Shorten the supply chain for better taste

If you want it to taste better then go local – shorten that supply chain and deal with people you can get to know and trust. That means taking more time about it and usually paying more money. In Ipswich I can recommend Lux Farm – I used to drive past their herd of belted Galloway cows every day, and the shop is on the farm, Eileen and her team are very helpful and they know their stuff – and they knew their stock when it was on the hoof. She won’t sell you horsemeat – I can guarantee you that. Even if someone swapped one of the cows for an old nag at the slaughterhouse it wouldn’t get to you, because she knows what her cows look like and they butcher the carcasses on the farm when they come back from slaughter. Even if they didn’t, she knows what beef smells and looks like. As an added bonus her beef tastes far better than the anonymous industrial beef from Tesco, because the cows are pasture-fed – you can see them on the side as you drive in. I’ve talked about Richardson’s smokehouse before – again, go local – there you can see the stuff being smoked out the back on your way in. It has flavour and distinctiveness. But it comes at a price premium.

Take ownership and control

Take some responsibility for what you shove into your gob. We got beef made out of horseflesh because we want it cheap. We also got here because we seem to be less able to accept that meat comes from animals these days, so the children’s market in particular hides the fact that this is a piece of animal. Unlike cats, humans aren’t obligate carnivores, so there’s a perfectly good, if more time-consuming and less flavourful IMO alternative.

Milling meat finely into a puree lacks honesty, which is why it is so beloved of industrial food processors. So does pressing it into cute shapes so your kids don’t realise that this

Dino chicken nuggets, WTF?
Dino chicken nuggets, WTF?

has a theoretical and intellectual relationship to this


Though it never pays to make the assumption unreservedly with industrial food products.

Previous generations only ate meat once a week, it’s inherently more expensive than food from plants. If you want to eat it every day you’re either going to have to be rich or you’re going to have to accept industrial meat. Or follow Mrs Ermine’s advice and eat offal which is nutritious and cheap, but nowadays often thrown out or fed to cats and dogs.

More regulation is not the answer

The Grauniad, bless their cotton socks, recommend more regulation as the answer. I’m not so sure. Regulation just seems to encourage the ‘it’s not me, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t the only one, if it was me it was the fault of people i had no control of, andย  lessons will be learneddefence. How do you make regulation stick across four countries and even more companies? What’s wrong with the regulation we have already – last time I looked it was illegal to pass one thing off as another. I’d say we need shorter supply chains and a bit more human integrity in those suppliers. It’s the sheer number of companies and subcontractorsย  that the ingredients are relayed through that is the problem – it is asking for trouble, and at each handover information is lost about where the food came from.

Vertical integration is the only way to get enough control over the variables, and that fell out of fashion in the 1970s. The alternative is to shorten the supply chain by going local, buying from farmer’s markets and the like, but while than usually improves quality no end, it doesn’t come cheap.

In the end this is the choice of the consumer. Want to eat a lot of cheap meat? You’re going to be eating industrial processed meat, and every so often you’re going to be eating something other than you think you’re eating. But hey, the price is right! What has happened is the problem described by Ellen Ruppel Shell in Cheap. Modern capitalism hollows out the middle ground and polarises the market, because like good little consumers we generally focus on the ‘for money’ side of the value for money equation, ignoring value. So we all crowd down the bottom end of the market, leaving a few intrepid souls who do care to hold up the top end of the market.

Britain is a rich country, but we had better fresh food when we were poorer but didn’t buy everything from supermarkets

Obviouly if you’re a top end consumer shopping at farmer’s markets or chi-chi London gourmet stores you’ll get much better food than we used to have in the 1960s and 1970s, but for the average British consumer quality has dropped – average and even poor consumers had access to better, fresher food then because the supply chains were shorter.

Not so long ago we used to have a method that drew an acceptable balance between quality and price, indeed even offering a range of price points that the customer could choose between, even for a big world city like London where I grew up. London used to have wholesale markets – Smithfield for meat, Covent Garden for fruit and veg and Billingsgate for fish. These supplied the butchers, greengrocers/market stallholders and fishmongers where my mother bought food in the 1970s.

These markets and retailers are virtually irrelevant to retail buyers now, because from the 1980s onwards we decided that food wasn’t something we wanted to spend time bothering with, either preparing or taking time to buy, so we turned to the supermarkets to supply our food. And so the inexorable slide down in quality and, to be fair, price, began. Supermarkets taught us to value looks and convenience over quality and taste, because this is what they could deliver, consistently and to a price. They pretend to care about quality, but it is more consistency and ease of handling they value. If you actually sit down and take it out of the packaging, there’s not that much between most ‘value’ and ‘taste the difference’ ranges in terms of taste.

I don’t know who the London markets supply now, but they seem a shadow of their former selves in the London I grew up in – I went to see one once. The functions they provided now go on in anonymous warehouses and distribution points by the sides of European motorways. No Smithfield market trader would dare try and pass off horse as beef in the 1960s and 70s, because the butchers he was selling to knew what beef looked and smelled like. If caught out, his reputation would be trashed in the market and he’d be ruined.

Some of the outrage and hoo-hah about the horsemeat scandal are because it shines an unkind light on the deracination of modern industrial food. It’s generally serviceable, it is cheap-ish, it doesn’t usually make anybody ill, but it isn’t good. That fact that nobody seems to be asking the question why this has to be picked up by DNA testing rather than those strange knobbly bits all over people’s tongues shows our expectations of industrial food aren’t really that high. In that case, does it really matter what it’s made of? Perhaps we need to stop kidding ourselves, and just label things ‘meat’ or ‘herbivore mammal’ and ‘pig’ and accept whatever the market can bring cheapest at the time. It’s not like anyone seems to be able to tell the difference what a ready meal is really made of ๐Ÿ˜‰