Landlines: Horseburgers? you get what you pay for

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ALMOST every informed comment on last week’s “horsemeat in burgers shock horror” revelation came to the same conclusion: if the offer is eight such frozen burgers for £1 or, in Ireland, six for one euro, what do you expect will be in them?

You might not expect 29 per cent horsemeat, as was found in some, or traces of horsemeat and pig in others. But anyone who takes any interest in their food apart from looking at the price would expect, what was also true, that not much of the burger content would be beef and a lot of it would be rusk, water, and other legal fillers.

And the beef that was present was not going to be organic, or grass-fed, rare breed or even prime. It was going to be beef only within the widest of definitions – residue, scraped, recovered, or whatever happens to the remnants of a carcase that can’t be sold in any other way.

It’s a simple message – buy the cheapest and what you get is poor quality. It’s not even the best option, is it? Buy cheap burgers and watch them shrink, buy quality burgers and watch them hold their shape, stay full size and taste good; once cooked, what’s left of cheap burgers have cost about twice the price on the packet and the taste is woeful.

Again as several food scientists and food analysts pointed out, the lesson is not so much the traces of horsemeat, but the generally poor quality legal components of a cheap burger.

Will that lesson be learned? Will the supermarkets involved stop offering cheap burgers? If they do, will shoppers avoid them? Or will price continue to dictate even when cheap on the packet does not translate into cheap on the plate?

Meantime, as the search went on for where the imported meat products containing horsemeat originated we got the usual flannel from politicians, that is, quotes such as “We’re in a better place than eight years ago” – when there were revelations about what was going into some big-firm meat products – and “Lessons have been learned”.

Dear me. We’re always in a better place, aren’t we, lessons have always been learned. Except that, patently, we’re not in a better place and lessons have not been learned. The Westminster government has cut funds for food safety surveillance, the food industry is increasingly responsible – bit of a misnomer there – for policing itself, and in the face of demand for cheap food we can guess how effective that is likely to be.

Trying to pass off dodgy meat as something else, as fit to eat or in dodgy processed products, is as old as livestock production. More than a century ago Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’ about slaughter and meat packing in Chicago revealed the horrors of what many Americans – especially the poor – were eating.

And as one former director of environmental health pointed out, of course we have been here before more recently in the UK. Bruce Cova said that in the early 1980s he led a two-year investigation into the sale of horse, kangaroo, donkey, buffalo and knacker-meat as beef in burgers, pies and sausages.

It was estimated then that such meat comprised ten to fifteen per cent of the total used in processing. Have things improved? Possibly, but Mr Cova said: “Retailers and others are now apologising for this happening (the horsemeat discovery) while they should be explaining why they have not followed or learned from lessons clearly identified 30 years ago.”

Meat substitution revealed last week, he said, is “about money and illegal action. Experience shows that under these circumstances anything goes.”

Remember that next time you’re tempted by cheap meat products and say to yourself: “You get what you pay for.” British farmers would appreciate that as they struggle to compete with cheap imports and processed rubbish.

Even in these straitened times, the message is to study the labels and buy British. I’m not in the business of promoting one big retailer above another, but Morrison advertises, rightly, that it is the only supermarket with 100 per cent British meat. The same goes for more high street butchers. Give them your support – if it’s burgers you want they’ll taste better and be cheaper in the long run.

An interesting aside to the discovery of what went into several million cheap burgers was that there seemed to be more concern about traces of pig meat – on religious grounds – than horsemeat. If clearly labelled, there is not the knee-jerk reaction of horror we used to get about horse on the menu.

Even a member of one of the horse societies was pragmatic about that, saying that if the horses were treated and slaughtered humanely, horsemeat was an alternative to lamb, chicken, beef or pork for those who prefer it.

Some years ago I tried horsemeat in a Belgian restaurant, a country where they eat a lot of horsemeat, as well as chips, mayonnaise and mussels. At this remove I seem to remember it as leaner, darker and sweeter than beef; on the other hand I’ve never been tempted to try it since, at least not knowingly. But as long as it’s labelled, I can make that choice.