Never has the press jumped on a story so hard than they have with the horsemeat affair. Mad cow disease was horrific and a real threat to humans. Did it have the same volume of newspaper space? NO.
We do know a few things about this saga. Somewhere between the horse dying and the packaged product, someone has lied. It’s as simple as that. Beef has been swapped for horsemeat. Sometimes the food chain can be very short and the farmer is the slaughterman, butcher and salesman. This is not the problem.
Every step in modern food production is tightly controlled. The paperwork needs to show what passes between each stage. So far the problem seems to point towards the beginning of the trail. It looks like the bulk minced meat is tainted. This would be anywhere from the abattoir to the meat cutters or one stage further. Meat cutters break down the animal carcass into more useable bits.
A lot of manufacturers don’t want to do this task themselves. Nor does it make sense to transport all that extra weight, especially if the meat is going abroad. After this it may go somewhere else where they do the mincing. After this a producer may mince the meat up and then makes the products. Do the quick service restaurants, pubs, schools or hospitals make their own sausages and burgers? Highly unlikely. It is plain and simple, someone early on has faked the paperwork.
Now for the second part of this, butte. I had never heard of this before. Nor I guess had most if not all the journalists who jumped on board. Phenylbutazone is the posh word, it is used as a pain killer by vets. It was used more commonly in humans, but is limited to in hospital treatment for one condition. The problem was that it caused a very nasty blood disorder in about 1 in 30,000 patients.
A horse is given this drug about 3 times per day. A horse weighs usually over a quarter of a ton. If the horse was put down at the highest point of this dosage, if the meat was freshly minced, if it was 100% of the meat in a product, if it was eaten in quantity by a human then it still wouldn’t be at anywhere near the level that would cause a problem in people.
When you drive prices down, something has to give. At some point you hit a line where you cannot put the product out for less than the competition. There are lots of shortcuts in food processing. You can use short dated meat, it’s getting frozen anyway. Meat is an open description which means, lean, fat and connective tissue, within certain limits. Frozen products have such a long shelf life that you rarely have the same waste as with fresh. There are other ingredients to bulk it out.
The sinister part is when the label lies, then you need to ask - what are you eating?
So what’s the answer? Make your own meals from scratch. It takes less time to make real burgers from the beginning than it does to cook the ready meal version. Or find somewhere that does all this for you.
Ross Boardman is author of “101 Restaurant Secrets” and an award winning restaurateur.