It’s the fast fuse food scandal of the decade.
Passing off horse meat as beef is anathema to the British public. More are turning, or returning, to reputable independent butchers on local high streets – although their ranks have dwindled since cut price supermarkets lured shoppers away.
We Brits have an emotional attachment to horses – here on the Fylde coast we have an international horse sanctuary and umpteen equestrian centres and riders – but we also believe we should know exactly what we are eating.
Horsemeat may be a delicacy in France but wild horses wouldn’t drag most of us to eat it this side of the Channel. The French, who boycotted British beef long after the mad cow crisis passed, initially shrugged off the horsemeat issue as hysteria on the part of the “Rosbifs” – their nickname for roast beef loving Brits.
Le Monde’s food critic Jean-Claude Ribaut wrote: “It’s an English ethnocentric attitude that applies also to rabbit, andouillette, frogs, and calves’ heads.”
They changed their tune when similarly mislabelled food was found there too.
Having stressed there was no health risk from “contaminated” meat the Food Standards Agency has since called for tests for traces of veterinary drug phenylbutazone as animals treated with such should not pass to the food chain.
The controversy has affected companies in the UK, Ireland, Poland, France and Romania. The list is growing as investigators follow the money through to the source of a supply chain beset with twists and turns.
It is feared organised crime and fraud holds the key to the flooding of the market with cheaper – if not necessarily inferior – meat.
Companies caught in the net seem to have been duped with the rest of us. They cleared shelves of unwittingly illicit products and are now fighting to clear reputations.
Shoppers remain wary. Many double check labels on shelves and seek reassurances at point of purchase.
One till assistant at a chain caught up in the storm admits: “I’ve lost count of the people who have asked if our lasagne is safe.”
Beryl Johnson, 78, of Anchorsholme, says: “I buy few convenience foods but get Findus lasagne for the grandchildren. If you’re told it’s beef you assume it’s beef and not some poor horse sent to a knackers’ yard abroad.
“The kids are horrified. I’m easier going. I grew up in the war and we ate rabbits, put scraps out for the pigman. Times and attitudes change.”
Chef Nanette Trueman, who trained at Elizabeth Gaskell college, is a former hospital dietitian, food technologist, school meals advisor, head of catering, cookery columnist, and founder of her own creative cookery school in Hambleton.
Nanette says no, no, to cheap meat. She explains: “Everyone wants cheap good food but there is no such thing. Horse meat is actually not bad meat.
“It’s probably better than a lot of the scrapings put into cheap mince.
“The real story is mindless misuse of power, businesses run without any understanding of cause and effect, totally misleading information about food and health endorsed by people who ought to know better.
“We need to spend a little time thinking about what we really want to eat. Not what the food industry tells us to eat.”
Cleveleys butcher Richard Grime - of the family run dynasty founded in 1895 – says the horsemeat scandal is a consequence of price wars, lack of DNA testing by food authorities, and thousands of horses heading out from Ireland on “false passports” for the food chain. He adds: “Problems arise with imported stuff. We employ 27 people here, prepare our own food, buy beef on the bone. We know exactly what we are buying: English beef and all traceable. We’re selling more beef burgers than ever before!
“I suspect another problem may well transpire. Here we mince our own beef. Many don’t want to do that. They buy vacuum packed meat, red stuff put through the mincer, supposedly beef. Supermarkets may import beef labelled 85 per cent visual lean, the system used to estimate fat content of cuts, but do they know whether horsemeat is being mixed in with it?
“It’s scandalous. We do here what we’ve always done, since my grandfather had his own slaughter house. And that’s buy the full cow, butcher it for the main cuts, the rest for mince or pies, and it’s 100 per cent accountable.
“The horsemeat scandal has shocked everybody but proves provenance and dealing with reputable people is important. The supermarkets who keep pushing suppliers to rock bottom prices will have to pay the consequences.”
Some butchers sell horse meat to order.
But Mark Hamer, 83, remembers an horse meat shop opening at the corner of North Albert Street/Victoria Street, Fleetwood, after the war when rationing was rife.
He said: “Horse meat could be sold without coupons. It was tasty but didn’t catch on so the shop closed soon after. Fleetwood never got the taste for it.”