Consider these words, sung by the evil publican Thenardier (the “master of the house”) and his scheming wife:
“Food beyond compare, food beyond belief,Quite makes your mouth water, doesn’t it? Almost enough to make you want to pop out for a Shergar-burger.
Mix it in a mincer and pretend it's beef.
Kidney of a horse, liver of a cat,
Filling up the sausages with this and that.”
Sorry. Actually, my favourite among the recent deluge of related jokes is this: “I had a Tesco burger last night – I’ve still got a bit between my teeth”.
But the current food scandal is really no laughing matter. And it’s not as straightforward as it might seem, either.
Emotion-based scruples aside, horse is a better-quality meat than beef – especially the kind of “mechanically-recovered” beef that goes into cheap burgers. So all those ready meals and convenience foods that have just been removed from the shelves were probably of higher, not lower, nutritional value than they were meant to be.
Throwing it away is a shocking, almost criminal, waste. Not least of the horses that went into it.
If they really were, as is suggested, tired old nags driven off Romanian streets by new regulations against horse-carts, then it’s doubly sad.
Not least for the owners who have lost their fellow-workers and companions, fed into the mincer of the European cheap-food chain.
I don’t much fancy the thought that I might be chewing on Dobbin in my cottage pie.
But then there are good reasons not to eat beef too – none of them anything to do with whether it’s actually horse rather than cow.
- Reason 1: If it’s from the USA, there’s a good (or rather, evil) chance it’s been reared in conditions of overcrowding that would horrify a decent person.
- Reason 2: If it’s from South America, it’s probably been raised on grazing-land that was recently rainforest and should have been left that way.
- Reason 3: Wherever it’s from, raising one meal of beef takes land, time and resources that could have fed many families. Overall, worldwide, the eating of large quantities of beef by the relatively rich is one of the reasons why so many other people can’t afford to eat properly at all.
- Reason 4: The mass farming of cattle is believed by many scientists to be among the significant causes of global warming, partly – but not only – for reason 2 above.
- Reason 5: It’s not actually very good for you anyway. Not like a nice horse steak, for example. And certainly not in the quantities people in Britain, western Europe, and especially America, gulp it down.
The amount of animal flesh so many of us consume is unhealthy for all concerned. It’s simply not viable to produce so much meat in ways that are sustainable and humane.
Vegetarianism is one answer. Simply cutting down drastically on how much meat we all eat is another, possibly better one.
It would mean we could afford – from every point of view – to eat better meat; quality over quantity.
If anything good has come out of the scandal now galloping across Europe, it’s the awareness that has been raised. The shining of a light into some very murky places indeed.
You thought your nicely packaged lasagne came from a supermarket shelf. But before that it came from a factory somewhere in Europe. And before that, various parts came from other factories in other places – Romania, Poland, France or wherever – whose sources and methods you may never have seen, imagined or wanted to.
The real scandal is not that something labelled “beef” might include horse. It’s not even that it might be full of drugs administered to living horses in Britain, exported for slaughter, then imported back as ready meals.
It’s that all these things were going on unknown, apparently – even by the companies selling us the stuff – until now.
It’s makes you wonder what else they’re selling us without telling us.
If the production line that ends on your table begins in a back yard in Bucharest, where else might it pass through on the way?
This whole seedy saga has revealed some things we might never have considered or wanted to know. But now we do.
When it’s over, dropped off the news agenda, let us not forget what we have learned.
It’s always good to know what you’re eating. Unless, perhaps, you’re dining Chez Thenardier.