Landlines: Horsemeat buck-passing off and running

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No need to cheer yet, but I couldn’t help feeling a flicker of hope about the weather after those few days of sunshine and higher temperatures over the weekend and into the start of this week.

There were signs of ploughed lighter land drying on top, although on any type of soil things get sticky again only a few inches down. And as through November, December and January I can’t remember seeing so much water lying in fields.

But sun shining and some land drying has to be a good sign as arable farmers, near their wits’ end about drilling anything, look at tonnes of unsown winter wheat seed in the shed and the likely acreage of spring barley trying to find a home at harvest time keeps going up.

Potato and vegetable growers who face even tighter planting, transplanting and sowing schedules, usually trying to meet specific dates almost regardless of the weather, are also worried and there’s an urge to get fertiliser spreaders and sprayers into action.

In all operations, the main sufferer is the soil. That’s why flotation tyres and tracks that try to spread the weight of machinery and avoid compaction have become increasingly common – as have diggers making spot checks for drains or digging emergency channels. Drainage is once more seen as a worthwhile investment.

The horsemeat saga continues along the usual lines of such a scandal, that is, with everyone trying to pass the buck or, in this case, the horse. Slaughterhouses in Britain and in the rest of Europe say yes, we kill and process horses, but they are sold clearly marked as horsemeat.

Processors say they have rigorous testing and quality control and wouldn’t do such a thing as use cheap, adulterated, unmarked supplies. The big retailers claim that they have rigorous testing and quality control and are shocked and horrified that processors desperate to get contracts would use cheap horse rather than beef or lamb remnants and scrapings along with water and filler.

Governments have been shocked and horrified etc. to find horsemeat in processed meals and burgers in spite of rigorous Food Standards Agency testing and quality control checks, even if they have been cut back spectacularly in recent years to save money.

In short, damage limitation all round. Take Tesco, for example with full page newspaper adverts announcing: “We have a responsibility to take the lead on this issue. The improvements we make will help set new standards for the industry.”

Talk about a horse laugh? The way that the big retailers could set new standards – and I agree it’s a novel thought – is to pay suppliers a fair price for meats that go into processed and “value” products. That way there is a chance, slim, but there, of getting meat that isn’t slaughterhouse leavings or horse.

But that’s not the way it’s going to go. The Tesco advert went on to say that their Herculean efforts would not mean “more expensive food… It will mean you can expect nothing less than the highest possible standard.”

As the saying goes, gie’s a break, pal. Just as if you pay peanuts you get monkeys – there’s another thought, any testing done for simian remains in kebabs? – if the big processors and retailers pay pennies when they should pay pounds then they get inferior meat, sometimes from the wrong species.

And that will continue in one way or another until we’re all prepared to accept that food can’t be the cheap option that the supermarkets have persuaded us it is in the past 30 years or so as average household spend on food has dropped from more than 25 per cent to barely 10.

It’s easy to say that if you buy tinned or frozen brown gloop because it’s apparently cheaper and easier to use than a pound of good quality fresh mince that can be cooked in a variety of ways to feed several people, then you deserve what you get.

But those who don’t know any better and can’t do the sums or the cooking still deserve protection from the rapacious supermarkets even if some retailers are less guilty than others. It was interesting that when a newspaper asked all the big retailers the straightforward question of how their own-brand beef got from farm to shelf only Morrison and Waitrose were prepared to say. Tesco wouldn’t, nor would Sainsbury or the Co-op.

What the knock-on effect will be is hard to say. I think that those who don’t know any better than to eat cheap burgers or buy kebabs and processed gunk now won’t change their eating habits, no matter how much horsemeat, containing traces of antibiotics or not, is found.

I’d like to think that the quality High Street butchers we’re lucky to still have in the Borders and North Northumberland get a boost, and that it lasts. Farmers are trying to get their message over with their own newspaper adverts “Leading the way in high standards – Great British farmers are proud to produce great British food.”

So they do. But we’re all whistling in the dark until the great British public decides that it is prepared to pay a realistic price for that food.