Andrew Thorpe-Apps says the ‘horsemeat scandal’ is an opportunity for the British to change their eating habits.
John Browne owns a butcher shop in Brentwood, Essex. He greets his customers – most of whom he knows by name – in a traditional white trilby and apron. These days the shop is bustling with activity, but this time last year things were very different: ‘It was a struggle. We just weren’t attracting younger people into the shop,’ John recalls. ‘But now we get a lot of young ladies asking for good quality cuts for their families. I’m more confident about the future.’
Britain has developed an unhealthy obsession with supermarket processed foods. In 2012, £3.8 billion was spent on ready-meals, pies and pasties. Yet many ready-meals are ‘nutritionally chaotic’, according to a recent study of their energy contents. Of the 67 meals tested, 32 contained insufficient calories to constitute a meal, while ten had more than 700kcal (the industry’s accepted maximum energy content). Many supermarket ready-meals have disturbing levels of fat and salt. Furthermore, much of the ‘meat’ in ready-meals is not what consumers think it is – brain, tissue and even feathers are all lumped together.
The ‘horsemeat scandal’ has roared on ever since the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced the discovery of equine DNA in beef burgers. Horsemeat has subsequently been found in supermarket ready-meals and other ‘economy’ products across Europe.
The presence of horsemeat in processed meals has put a spotlight on Europe’s industrialised food system. Processed meat is imported into the UK from mainland Europe via complicated supply chains. For example, the meat used in equine-positive Findus products was sourced via a chain of subcontractors and traders in France, Cyprus, Romania and the Netherlands. This offers criminals numerous opportunities to substitute cheaper meat, often obtained illegally.
There is no evidence that public health has been put at risk (although it remains a possibility). The issue is about mislabelling and the vulnerability of the supply chain. We simply cannot be sure what is in processed meals or where it came from.
But for all these worrying developments, the horsemeat scandal could be the start of a positive re-evaluation of Britons’ relationship with food. It is right that we should place more emphasis on the quality and provenance of meat. Buying behaviour should not be solely, or even mainly, influenced by cost. Of course, this can be difficult when food prices are rising and wages are falling in real terms.
George Eustice MP said: ‘There’s growing concern about the provenance of meat products. This latest scare over horsemeat is the latest in a long line of similar problems.’ Similarly, Guy Opperman MP said: ‘Cutting back on price, destroying traditional supply chains and not buying locally will always put pressure on the sanctity of the food chain. That is why you should always support local butchers and local markets.’
There are signs that this ‘cultural shift’ is already taking place. Since the horsemeat crisis began, some butchers have reported increased sales by more than a fifth. Consultancy firm Kantar has found that 34% of consumers are now less likely to buy processed meat and 13% intend to buy more local meat.
Back in Brentwood, all John Browne’s meat is sourced and slaughtered locally. He knows all his suppliers personally and is able to guarantee meat that is genuine and safe. Slaughtered animals are tagged to identify the herd they came from, and mince is made on site (there is no freezer).
Products with the Red Tractor logo – none of which have been implicated in the current scandal – contain meat from British farms. These products are produced to even higher standards than those required by law. Quality and traceability are assured.
However, this is not to suggest that one should only eat British farmed meat. Many products, such as chorizo, are only available from abroad. Also, it must be remembered that many are forced to purchase ‘economy’ products and ready-meals due to financial constraints. Therefore, it is essential that effective pan-European policing of supply chains is enforced. Further, these supply chains must be shortened (principally by removing subcontractors) in order to regain public trust. Every step in the supply chain must take responsibility for the food it produces.
It remains to be seen whether we are witnessing a permanent change in shopping habits. Unfortunately, it is likely that, once the current scandal is over, many consumers will revert to buying processed meat from supermarkets. However, people are now thinking about what they are eating and where it came from. That, at least, is a start.