Horsemeat scandal: has it changed your shopping habits?

by , Senior Food Researcher Consumer Rights 13 March 2013
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Shoppers have told us their trust in the food industry has dropped by a quarter since the horsemeat scandal broke. Has the episode made you think twice about the food you buy?

Six in 10 people have changed their shopping habits

I don’t eat red meat but I do buy and prepare it for my three-year-old.  I like to know exactly what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my son. The thought of buying one food product and getting another has really knocked my confidence.

And I’m not alone. In our survey of 2,000 adults, almost one in three now buy less processed meat, and a quarter are buying fewer ready meals containing meat or even choosing vegetarian options. In all, six in 10 have changed their shopping habits since the horsemeat scandal.

Confidence in food safety has also taken a hit. Before the horsemeat scandal, nine in 10 felt confident when buying products in a supermarket, but this has now dropped to seven in 10. The scandal has highlighted the complexity of our food supply chain. It has also become apparent that changes to food surveillance and enforcement have led to weakened consumer protection.

Horsemeat in beef products

We’re calling on the government to take urgent steps to resolve the slack standards of the food industry. This involves: more surveillance that’s better coordinated, tougher enforcement, tighter legislation, improved country of origin labelling and for food labelling policy to be returned to the FSA.

It was during routine surveillance work by the Irish authorities that meat products contaminated with horsemeat were first identified. With food fraud surveillance work suffering from cuts in the UK, we need more intelligence-led and speculative surveillance where there’s a potential for cheaper ingredients to be substituted.

Knowing where your food’s from

Cuts to local authority budgets over the past few years have impacted trading standards and environmental health. Food labelling issues have become less of a priority, as they are seen as not having health consequences. There need to be clear disincentives for illegal practices, with tougher penalties for those prosecuted. Current proposals by the government to decriminalise failure to comply with food labelling legislation need to be scrapped.

We want the food industry to regularly check the authenticity of its products and improve traceability. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) needs to be given the power to require testing when necessary, to have access to and publish the results of food company testing, and to gain access to premises for the purpose of investigations.

Which? wants to see country of origin labelling extended to cover the meat in meat products. The government should abandon current proposals to drop national rules that require clear ingredient labelling for meat products that are sold loose (not pre-packed), as these provide valuable information to consumers. We also want to see better communication from the FSA to the public during a fast-moving food scare.

Food enforcement back under one roof

Since 2010, the FSA has dealt with enforcement while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) develops policy. Both elements used to be under the FSA, which has a remit to put consumers first. This scandal has shown that the split between Defra and the FSA causes unnecessary confusion and complication. We want all food labelling and standards responsibilities to be returned to the FSA.

What do you think needs to change to ensure the safety of your food and make sure you get the food you pay for? Will you be changing your shopping habits or the food you buy because of the horsemeat scandal?

Have you changed your shopping habits since the horsemeat scandal began?

No (63%, 860 Votes)

Yes (36%, 493 Votes)

I'm not sure (1%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,369

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102 comments

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spanner48

I quite like horsemeat – which contains less saturated fats than beef.

I’d like to be able to buy it in this country – as I can, and do, in France. Though not from condemned race-horses that have been stuffed with ‘Bute’ and other carcinogenic drugs.

Why not just label it clearly, and let shoppers decide?

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Lyn Western

Regardless of whether horsemeat is being sold in this country, surely the fact is that it is a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act to describe a product as beef if it is not beef so this is an intent to deceive the buying public and should be dealt with appropriately.

As always it is people on a low budget forced to buy cheap food who are exploited but really it’s often much more cost-effective to buy meat from your local butcher and learn to cook the less expensive cuts and make delicious meals. Previous generations have always done this when there was little money about. There are enough cooking programmes on TV to tell you how to do it! You’ve got to realise that many food retailers are there simply to make a profit with little regard for quality. If they can get away with it they will!

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Malcolm R

Lyn,I agree with you that you don’t have to pay for expensive cuts of meat to make a delicious meal. A casserole is one of my favourites, as is a lamb hot pot; cheap cuts cooked slowly.
Where I don’t agree is that retailers have little regard for quality – some don’t seem to, or at least they have lost control of quality – hence horse meat (and what else?) – arrive in products without their knowledge. There are other retailers who do pay attention to quality – worth shopping there where there is still trust.

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David

Malcolm, Lyn, I think you’re being a little cynical about the retailers – and so are most people. Terms like ‘exploited’ and ‘little regard’ mean that you think that all of the big retailers, who continually stress the pains they take to source even the cheapest foods as safely and reliably as possible, show that you think they’re blatantly lying.

This would be a stupid move on their part, as the penalties for being caught are so huge in money, in sales and in reputation. So they wouldn’t do it – it’s not worth the potential loss. Far from calling them out on this, the government officials have stressed that they see no health risk and began immediately looking far down the supply chain to find the scam. I don’t say that the supermarkets and big names couldn’t have been more vigilant, but that’s after an unusually careful Irish inspectorate, suspecting the Ireland-to-England horse carcass certificate scam that was eventually uncovered, went as far as to do the NEW DNA checks on carcasses. This prompted others to follow suit and the fact that horsemeat was in Eastern European mixed meat products became public here. This is completely legal; what wasn’t was the lack of ‘horsemeat’ on the labels provided by the UK factories that used this source, when the supermarkets commissioning them had already specifically asked that it wouldn’t be.

So where did that place a supermarket’s responsibilities five years ago, when the expensive DNA testing that was the only way to uncover this was only used in court cases and was available only from a few specialized labs? I don’t see them as culpable – until circumstance had clearly changed. And then they mostly did react very quickly.

It’s different now, of course. DNA testing is now much cheaper (though still costly) and many more labs have begun to tool up to provide the service, so random tests can become routine. But it’s hardly the supermarkets’ fault that they did what everyone thought then was enough checking. Legally, the retailer, not anyone in the supply chain, is responsible for any fault of anyone else – even if they couldn’t know that cheating was going on. But in truth, not in law, it’s the same situation as if you’re passed a very well forged banknote at a supermarket till, from a clip that’s come straight from their bank. If neither the bank teller and scanners, nor the supermarket cashier could spot the forgery, whose fault is it?

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Malcolm R

David, I have made the point before that by not being aware that the product some (major) retailers were buying contained horsemeat was down to them not being in control of the quality of the food they acquired from their suppliers. It was fraud that was perpetrated upon them in some cases, so their suppliers were in an untrustworthy supply chain. To me that is down to inadequate quality control. If they can unknowingly be sold products containing horsemeat, what might other products contain (unknown to them) that they buy from similar dishonest sources?
I have trust in certain other major retailers that I hope proves justified. That is not cynicism, it is a logical response to the facts in my view.
I do not understand your statement that product containing horsemeat is “completely legal” – it is not in products that are not meant to contain it, particularly when it’s quality is unknown. I would not object to buying horsemeat if properly labelled from a reputable source, assuming it to be have been properly slaughtered and inspected. Can we be sure the horsemeat sold fraudulently has been properly sourced? I don’t see why when the process in part may be criminal rather than genuine error; criminal suppliers would not necessarily have any regard for the supply of a wholesome product.

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David

Malcolm, I do agree with you. It’s legal everywhere for human food to contain horsemeat – it just has to be declared, and musn’t be in a product that states that it’s solely something else, eg, beef. But burgers and sausages can say ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ on the label, as long as it’s made sufficiently clear that other meats are present. Look at most Hot Dog bottles and cans, and you’ll see how much chicken and turkey is in what traditionally was a pure pork food.

As far as criminal activity is concerned, I’m sure that you’re right. But sheer economics comes into this, too. This horsemeat scandal has come about because of a sudden glut of very cheap horse carcasses in Eastern Europe and some creative people spotted an illegal way to make a quick profit. Ordinarily, with horse being a premium meat, it wouldn’t be available so widely. As far as I can gather, the surplus horses in Romania would have been processed by local rules quite legally and to a good hygiene standard. It’s when the company two steps along the chain hides its provenance to sell the low-price mixed meat as a more expensive mixed meat for UK use that you get the crime. And until recently, it would have been undetectable except at huge cost.

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Alwyn Wood

Will anybody be examining what goes into the pet food we buy? Stock cubes, oxo etc?

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David

There are regulations about pet food safety, and manufacturers must follow them. But remember, this conversation isn’t really about food safety – that never was an issue – but about labels that are fully disclosing of the contents and not misleading. And the rules about pet food are much more lax than those for human food.

Think, though. Just as for people, there’s no rule that says that what you buy to eat has to be good nutrition, just that it not be dangerous. As long as any claims on the packaging can be substantiated, no law is broken if you feed your animal junk. It was proven over 100 years ago (by Pavlov, to get a Nobel Prize) that dog, for example, digest mixed food poorly and are much better off eating meat quite separately from biscuit and other carbohydrates. More recently, it’s become known that chocolate is harmful to dogs. Yet makers still peddle ‘complete meal ‘ mixes for dogs; and owners still think chocolate is a dog treat!

The sad fact is that dogs, especially large ones, have a short life and the effects of bad diet are too little known for you to sue a maker whose dogfood is poor nutrition, yet claims otherwise. That’s why so many owners won’t feed their pets on manufactured foods.

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Malcolm R

David, my view is that this issue IS about food safety. If certain manufacturers or retailers do not know what the food products they buy contain, then they do not have control over its composition or quality. Other more harmful ingredients may be included.

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David

OK, Malcolm, it’s about food safety – all food industry practice and malpractice is about food safety. This issue is one about substituting cheaper meats for more expensive ones rather than, say, substituting condemned, diseased meats for wholesome ones (the Derbyshire case). I don’t think the two are comparable. Every abattoir, every processing plant and every packer is subject to the possibility of health fraud at all levels, from the worker who spits into the vat to the farmer who manages to hide disease in an ailing animal to the driver who takes a bribe to swap good for poor carcasses en route between factories. We need to put all of it in proportion. The plant with dodgy hygiene because the manager doesn’t care and his workers know it is a much worse risk than the manager who’s involved in carcass substitutions, when all the carcasses have passed the vet’s inspection. We rely on vets, inspectors and police to safeguard us from criminals, and they are professional enough to see where the key risks lie.

You’re right that unless the retailer has an inspector looking at each stage and can verify the provenance and handling of every carcass and batch, then there is a chance of food safety failures. But how far do you take this? It’s economically impossible for every worker in the chain to be 24/7 shadowed by a supermarket snoop; it’s a stupid expectation. And, of course, a snoop on the snoop to see that they aren’t taking bribes to look the other way. Yet there’s no other way to be certain. No, the retailers put a sound system into place with suppliers they’ve found trustworthy. Then they police it with random checks. But occasionally, the current situation will occur and they tighten up standards again. They, like all of us, are merely human.

In the end, the paranoid will have to buy direct from the farmer and avoid meat they can’t chase into the abattoir. Even farmer/butchers have tales about carcass swapping! Or we can become vegan and risk the carcinogens in beans.

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Laura Holland

Horsemeat is usually and legally in petfood- regrettably horses are slaughtered every day-
in increasing numbers since recession has exponetially increased abandonment- the meat will go somewhere and it is unlikely that this scandal is urelated to abandonment and changes in legislation in Romania making it illegal to take horses on roads. The EU must smarten up and realize legislation in member and neighbouring staes will cause related problems and be more proactive.

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Josquine

You need to careful when looking at statistics. A vegetarian or someone who never ate processed food would not need to change their habits, so apparent survey results can be misleading. I remember this at the time of the first AIDS scares. When people were asked had they changed their sexual habits most said no, and the scandalised media made much of this But of course they didn’t. Those in stable sexual relationships, or in no sexual relationships, i.e. the vast majority of the population, had no need to change their habits.

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Laura Holland

I haven’t changed my buying habits but that’s because I never buy meat in a supermarket- it is so much more expensive I don’t understand why anyone who is not incredibly lazy does so. I am however disgusted with the attitude and arrogance of the huge supermarkets who are supposed to have a legal duty to label products accurately. It just proves what I have always suspected that if there’s a fat profit in it they would rather face the pathetic fines and bad publicity than be honest,everyone should bear this in mind when shopping in supermarkets.

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Malcolm R

Laura, but you do have to trust that the other suppliers – butchers, farm shops, markets – source meat appropriately. The major retailers are better placed to control the supply of their products; the problem is whether they are diligent enough to ensure they get what they ask for. I believe there are some who regard quality as a top priority.

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Laura Holland

I agree Malcolm, but supermarkets have proved themselves as not honest in this regard, major suppliers are in a better position to control the supply of their products, but it has been proved they do not do so. Unfortunately major suppliers are also in the best position to break the law and maximize profits, they have thousands of shareholders and therefore are highly motivated to bend and break the rules to maximize dividends. Some supermarkets not inplicated in the scandal may have a less amoral stance, but as labelling is clearly not effectively policed we as consumers are not really in a position to judge, we can only go with what we know- and that is the largest supermarkets are happy to tell lies on their packaging and then blame their beleaguered suppliers they pressurized to sell ever cheaper in the first place.

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wavechange

Laura

I take your point about supermarkets putting pressure on suppliers to force down prices and that is wrong. Maybe we need to think about implementing Fairtrade agreements in the UK. :-)

Although I am far from impressed by supermarkets, I agree with Malcolm that the large supermarkets do have control over their supply chain, though obviously that does not apply to branded products they sell. I have stopped following the horse meat story but I believe that the products affected were in the budget ranges, where the margins are smallest. I certainly don’t condone this, but this probably relates to the pressure on suppliers, as you have said.

You say that you don’t buy meat from supermarkets because it is ‘so much more expensive’ than from supermarkets. That surprises me, and I wonder how you can be sure that your supplier has carried out all the necessary tests to ensure that it is fit to eat.

Wherever we choose to buy our food, it should comply with the law, including description and safety. Nothing less will do.

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Peter Horstead

What I think is particularly annoying is the subsequent cover-up, which in essence was basic fraud by the retailers / supermarkets, who were well aware of what was going on. They have been conning the public for years. I would hit them with multi-milliom pound fines…..!

What about the meat withdrawn from the shelves……probably sold on to the poor sods in Africa, or made into sausages……!

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David

That withdrawn meat was merely mislabelled, not unwholesome. I imagine that the ‘***’ you mention in Africa would wolf it down gratefully knowing what it was – premium protein food. But the reality is that it would have been sold on for pet food, not in the UK but in a country where horsemeat isn’t a paranoid no-no for so many people.

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Malcolm R

Do we know it was not unwholesome. Was it fully traceable back to healthy horses, properly raised, slaughtered and inspected before entering the food chain? Something that enters the food chain illegally does not fill me with confidence.

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wavechange

Absolutely. I expressed concerns about whether the horse meat had gone through the appropriate tests on the previous page. I would be happy to try horse meat sold as such if I trusted whoever is selling it.

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David

Malcolm, of course we can’t be SURE. We never can unless we have personally followed each animal through the whole chain from birth to plate. And with a scam being part of this problem, there IS reason to suspect that hygiene and adulterant issues are more likely.

But, in this case, not a lot more likely. The meats have been traced to two sources: Irish horsemeat ‘beef’ in English butchers – the meat was relabelled as beef on its way into England somewhere – and a glut of Romanian horsemeat entering probably a variety of food chains, via (probably) Romanian and Polish abattoirs. In all these cases, the slaughter was in registered premises, so the standards from killing onwards should have been at least to petfood standards (‘wholesome’ is part of the petfood regulations).

Wavechange, let’s use your key word, ‘trust’ and get back to the article’s main question: “What do you think needs to change to ensure the safety of your food and make sure you get the food you pay for?” In my opinion, it’s better, electronically recorded (with photos) tracking through the chain.

But we can’t expect TSOs, customs officers or supermarket checkers to be perfectly able to pick up every possible scam and cheat in advance of them being put into use – and that seems to be what most critics in this conversation want. No matter how many extra millions we put into inspection, some scams will get through as they always have done, and new cheats will be discovered and used, as they always have been. The inspectors use their vigilance and skills as best as they can, but they’re hardly superhuman. And it isn’t the supermarkets deliberately inventing and driving fraud – which, Peter, you seem to be suggesting. It’s simply a lack of clairvoyance and perfection in any of those who guard our safety – and do it better than probably either you or I could. Let’s indeed have a beefier inspectorate (pun accidental but now well meant!) and better checks by the supermarkets. But if we can’t even prevent such a simple thing as email spam and viruses, how on earth can we make our food chain bullet-proof?

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wavechange

David – The points you have made in your second message are very reasonable, but I think Malcolm was quite right to pick you up when you claimed that the horse meat was ‘not unwholsesome’.

I’m not quite ready to turn vegetarian so I will have to rely on trust.

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David

Yes, wavechange, Malcolm. But it probably was as wholesome as other such mixed, processed-till-it-squeaks meat products. Not certainly, of course. By the way, from a previous comment, mechanically-recovered meat is a good analogue to the pre-civilized practice of eating the whole animal. Except in a glut season, I’m sure that the hunters would have scraped the bones, etc. and ate every nutritions bit. Not too different, then to a cheap burger!

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Malcolm R

There are retailers who source meat from known farms in the UK. To me that is much easier to control. I’d stick with that for peace of mind. We are becoming much more choosy about food quality than a few decades ago, presumably because of the problems that come to light. You have some chance being selective when buying retail, but I shudder to think what we might be buying from some restaurants, fast food, take aways – no labels there to scrutinise.

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Peter A

I am against the public purse financing the general testing of food. Defra or the FSA should require that the retailer correctly labels his food and where it is found that this is not the case, the retailer should be prosecuted. The prosecution should ask for costs including a substantial portion of the testing expenses as well as a punitive fine. Where a breach occurs that endangers public health e.g. bute in Corned Beef, a prison sentence should be available.

A long chain of supply is always inefficient in itself. If it results in cheaper food it is virtually certain that there is dishonesty at work. Some one has a tax scam or the food is being adulterated or some such.

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davidinnotts

Just spotted your comment, Peter. I see you writing that testing should be privately done, and then infringements penalized. But how can we tell that the private testing is honestly and diligently carried out? Publicly-financed testing is currently the way to police private testing – so should we stop it and just trust the private testers? Presumably you mean that those caught cheating should be fined the cost of catching them. But what about, say, the supermarkets whose tests are proven reliable when the public analyst cross-checked them? Do we fine them, too, for getting it right? We have always principally used public safety checks this way – sellers and makers are required to adhere to standards and their claims, and to check that they are doing so. The public bodies are there to police this.

In 1820 a public analyst, Frederick Accum, published the results of a huge investigation into the mass adulteration of food. Adulterated food was then much more common than pure food, and only the worst excesses prosecuted. He gave meticulous analytical results and named names of the guilty. There was mass outrage for a short time, then Accum was forced to emigrate after being accused of a trivial crime (taking book pages from a library). No public action on the frauds was taken, because many powerful men profited from the crimes. So are you saying that it’s the same today, and we should set up a private company to police the food industry, financed, I presume by the food industry and policed by them too? They’d love it, then – like the Press – insist that they’d need no further oversight and that reports of fraud were merely hysteria – as the Press are doing.

I totally agree with your comments on long-chain supply – it’s inherently risky of fraud, almost inviting it! It’s why the world finances collapsed after bundles of American mortgages were found, after being traded from bank to bank, to be far more liable to default than was expected. The fraud element seems to have been growing for a couple of decades, until the first poor ‘bundles’ matured and were found to realize far less than the buyers were told. Those who got away with it got more and more bold as they found that they weren’t being caught, so the cheating ran into hundreds of billions of dollars, all discovered as the bubble burst.

I reckon that the processed meat scam grew in the same way, with the provenance of each batch being obscured as it passed from company to company, being mixed and remixed along the way. The horse in it was unwrapper. The Irish public analyst (public purse!) spotted horse in supposed beef – a completely different UK-Irish scam – so prompting much more DNA testing, where the problem was otherwise found only in the really cheap mixed meat. In fact, that brief glut of horsemeat from Romania probably raised the quality of the burger meat quite a lot. After all, it did pass all of the safety checks!

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eileenwalters

ii dont trust any food now that i dont cook my self.i dont eat out now and will never eat out again.

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malcolm r

eileen, whilst I sympathise with your view, you still have to trust the ingredients you use. Eggs were badly affected by salmonella (we were told), beef by BSE, pesticide residues on vegetables and fruit – all food can be contaminated before you use it. However, I maintain that buying quality (not “value”) food from a reputable source is your best bet against what, in reality, is a very small risk. I believe we need to punish with publicity and fines any company – producer, wholesaler or retailer – that supplies tainted food either negligently or knowingly. The best way to make them more responsible.

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eileenb

As a young girl at the age of 13 we offered my grandmother a steak and kidney pie and she refused saying she does not eat them as they are made with horse meat, at the time we laughed it off thinking she did not know what she was talking about. Myself and brothers and sisters never forgot this and over the years used her statement as a guideline just in case, when buying pies and steered clear of cheap pies and ready meals, sausages etc, so when the horse meat scandal came up to us this confirmed what she said. I firmly believe horse meat has been in food products for a long time and it is has only now just come to light. Some food manufacturers and supermarkets put profit before quality and the health of the people who are buying these unsavoury ready meals. I understand that it is not the “horse meat” but the mis-labelling, this leads me to ask if they can do this what else is in the foods that we don’t know about. By the way I am now in my 50′s and have never trusted ready meals or take aways.

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John Ward

Remember, the horse meat passed all tests – it was just not what people thought they were buying. As David in Notts [above] remarked,”that brief glut of horsemeat from Romania probably raised the quality of the burger meat quite a lot. After all, it did pass all of the safety checks!”. Obviously, it would have been better if had entered the food chain legally from an approved source and passed all tests BEFORE going on sale rather than afterwards.

There is no general concern over the safety of ready-meals if they are stored and heated in accordance with the instructions. Some might lack taste and flavour and appear unappetising but that’s a different issue. Likewise burgers; their composition might vary considerably according to price but, of the millions consumed every day, there is rarely an incident. On take-aways I think customers do have to be cautious, but many are excellent and consistently achieve high food safety ratings. Unsatisfactory storage, cleanliness and preparation are the things which usually cause concern and lead to low ratings; the signs of potentially low standards are usually evident to the observant customer [but not always], and many of the insalubrious premises operate to serve the late night trade that is less discerning or more tolerant [or comprehensively intoxicated, of course]. They still deserve protection from unsafe products, though.

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davidinnotts

Granny was very likely right, Eileen! ‘Steaks’ can come from any large animal. But it would have been just as tasty. A century and more ago, horse was the poor man’s meat; but not so much because there was anything wrong with it but because it would have almost certainly have been from old, worked-out draft horses (‘knackered’, as the saying went: a horse butcher was a knacker). So a pie prepared with old but carefully tenderized meat would have been a real treat.

In France today,bœuf bourguignon is a real treat dish. Having eaten it at French restaurants, cheap as well as costly, I still marvel at the melt-in-the-mouth joy of this flavourful dish. It is clearly from cheap cuts, as there is plenty of gristle, but even the gristle has changed to a tasty jelly – quite unlike the same-named dish from British supermarkets, where the beef is the usual tough, chewy lumps. And I’d be surprised if the French dish didn’t include the cut-offs from une boucherie chevaline as well as from beef. When the horse meat scandal erupted, the French were even more outraged than we were – but not because there was horse in those ready meals, but because they were being fooled by mislabelling. To me, that’s the key point.

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malcolm r

Remember the other issue associated with horsemeat. Because it was an illicit ingredient it was of uncontrolled quality and could have been contaminated with antibiotics and other equine drugs. Nothing wrong with horsemeat per se, but apart from the fraud element the practical element of properly-contolled ingredients is their safety.

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davidinnotts

True, Malcolm, but remember that despite the thousands of tests that followed the revelation of the whole mess, not one case of contamination was actually found. The conclusion is that, in all probability, butchering etc. was of a good standard, and it was substituting a cheap ingredient (horsemeat offcuts) for a more expensive one that was the crime in this case. And that was only cause by the glut of horsemeat in eastern Europe at the time – the factory-scale butchers would have found it hard to shift the remainder when the best horse cuts had been sold. There is a rumour that an enterprising middleman now has a whole warehouse-full of best frozen horsemeat cuts somewhere in Europe, waiting for the best time to sell it on.

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