It’s only a picture. In this blog I usually aim to be non-controversial and I am very rarely topical. However, this old photograph has been sitting in my “miscellaneous” pile for decades and at last I see an opportunity to share it.
I took the photograph while on holiday in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France in the summer of 1990, using my old Ricoh SLR camera. Horsemeat is something we know it’s acceptable to eat in France, so I considered this image to be a snapshot of a different culture.
To those of you NOT in the UK, you may wonder why I say this subject is now topical. To sum it all up, since mid January a huge scandal has been unfolding in Europe, starting with the discovery of equine DNA in beefburgers in Ireland. Now a huge criminal network has been discovered, stretching from Eastern Europe, through France, to Ireland and the UK.
It seems horsemeat has been passed off as beef and has found its way into many cheap ready-meals in our UK supermarkets. Many a beefburger or lasagne has been found to contain 100% horse.
“Real” local butchers are having a field day as shoppers turn to a place where the source of their meat can be proven. Although to be honest I can’t see that people who usually rely on quick and cheap processed ready-meals will suddenly go back to basics and make their own dishes from fresh ingredients. And recognisable cuts of fresh meat from supermarkets don’t seem to be a problem anyway – this is just a loss of confidence in big supermarket chains, or maybe a “protest vote” with our feet.
In Britain we have a cultural aversion to eating horses – we tend to have a close domestic relationship with horses, cats and dogs, so find it taboo to eat any of these. They are our “friends”.
However, in hard times we have acquired the habit of eating horsemeat in Britain – notably during World War II when rationing made more acceptable cuts of meat rare.
The real point of the latest scandal is not the taboo, but the fact that this is fraud, passing off horsemeat as beef. And more than that horses, as far as I can tell, are not farmed in the way of cattle, sheep and pigs – in reasonably humane conditions (we hope). We even eat venison these days (that’s Bambi, remember?) – but at least that is, in its own way, “farmed”.
No, the very words “knacker’s yard” suggest a poor, bony and mangy horse that has died of old age or been sent away because it is no longer of any practical use – perhaps a carthorse or racehorse.
Not very appetising, and there is some evidence that the horsemeat coming into our food chain nowadays may also contain drugs.
To give balance I must add that UK Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies says there is no evidence yet of the painkiller Phenylbutazone (“bute”) being present in any of the horsemeat tested. Even if it is found, it would be at too low a level to constitute an effective dose, let alone a health risk.
So perhaps no need for panic? But everyone is very angry and perhaps now we will start to think about what goes into our processed food – and so will governments and inspectors. Because if somebody can make a profit out of adulterating it somewhere along the complicated international food chain, they surely will…
For a lot more about the cultural taboos around horsemeat, see Wikipedia…