Graham Head: solution to horse trading is in our own hands

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So it seems we have been inadvertently eating Dobbin in our burgers and lasagne. The ready meal does not contain what it says on the label. The Environment Minister is outraged, suspects fraud on an international scale and vows to get to the bottom of things, although apparently that does not extend to banning the import of ready meals from Europe.

Emergency weekend meetings are ordered, with the supermarkets and food manufacturers who shuffle uncomfortably and point the finger of blame overseas, where French manufacturers and Dutch and Cypriot meat suppliers also squirm and look further east to Poland and Romania, the only place in Europe where significant numbers of horse abattoirs still remain, it seems.

The FSA reassures us that there is not a health risk from eating horse meat, but as a precaution all items under suspicion will be removed from supermarket shelves (well, that’s very reassuring then).

Findus threatens to sue its suppliers and we learn that it does not even manufacture the offending lasagne itself. So what precisely is the point of calling it Findus lasagne then. Oh yes, I forgot – it used to be thought of as a trusted brand.

It seems that a few misplaced DNA nucleotides have got much of Europe reaching for the panic button. Government must enact more legislation, regulators and supermarkets should do more testing, Trading Standards must check that horse has not been misspelt as beef.

Well yes, it would be nice to feel that among the laundry list of ingredients on the packet, the headline act of your purchase was correctly identified, and even to know that the FSA will hand out some hefty mis-selling fines to the owners of the offending labels (about the size of those enacted on the banks for payment protection would be good).

But while we wait for governments and regulators to protect us the answer is literally in our own hands. We should just source our meat from local high street butchers or a farmers’ market, and do a little cooking ourselves.

Unlike many much larger towns in the south and cities in general, Berwick and its environs still have butchers in the high street. In fact we are blessed with three in Berwick (Norris, Skellys and Fairbairns), two in Wooler (Farm to Freeze, and Johnston’s) and Foreman’s in Norham, and we really should make use of them. You can speak to the person that buys in the meat every week, have it butchered or minced exactly as you would like and know that your beef, lamb or pork came from a local farmer.

Indeed, most butchers display a sign indicating exactly which farm this week’s beef came from and its passport number. Ever since the BSE crisis of the nineties, the controls on meat traceability within the UK have been very strict, every animal is tagged and computer logged when moved from farm to abattoir, and for beef cattle, any medical treatments administered to the animal are logged against each 
animal’s passport, so that no undesirable drugs or residues can enter the human food chain.

Contrast the simplicity, accountability and trust engendered by shopping for your meat locally, with the convoluted chain of events emerging in the media of animals and processed meat being transported all over Europe, turned into ready meals in France, imported by Findus and distributed to your local supermarket. Is it any wonder that mistakes can be made, regulations circumvented or frauds committed.

There is, of course, one snag with this scheme if you want to enjoy beef lasagne, lamb moussaka or cottage pie – you have to cook it yourself. But what could be easier than picking up a pound of mince from your local butcher and turning it into a cottage pie – a few onions, some minced beef, mashed potato, well seasoned with salt and pepper, and a few herbs. Make two or three at the same time and pop the extra ones in the freezer.

Of course, all these types of dishes, whether British (shepherd’s or cottage pie), Greek (moussaka), Italian (lasagne or cannelloni) or French (boeuf miroton) originated as ways of using up surplus cooked meat and other ingredients that you have lying around.

So why not also occasionally do what our grandmothers did. Buy a joint of meat from your butcher for the Sunday roast, and then use the minced or sliced, cooked meat later in the week in any European dish that takes your fancy, one that was designed to avoid waste and make good use of our food.

We don’t really have to wait for the politicians and regulators to disentangle the horse meat supply chain from the human food chain or the supermarkets to start publishing the results of their Dobbin DNA testing each quarter, before putting lasagne or cottage pie back on the menu again. We can simply do it ourselves – and who knows, we might just like the result and continue to do it ourselves.

•Graham Head is leader of the Slow Food Berwick group. Go to or for more information.