Horse Burgers and… Snarking?

Horse Burgers and… Snarking?

Okay, so I’ve been meaning to get to addressing this since it started emerging – it’s time for me to talk about horse meat. I know I’m late to the party, but sue me – I’ve been busy. And also, if I’m honest, I’m not really sure where I come down on the whole debacle.


For those of you outside the UK, I’m not sure how far this story has spread – so here’s the long and short of it. A few weeks ago, it turned out that some beefburgers sold by Tesco actually contained horse meat. Since then, it’s turned out that this isn’t just a one-off.

Nope. Horse meat has turned up in school meals, in ready-made lasagnes, and in budget products stocked by most of our supermarkets… In short, issues in the immensely complex, repeatedly outsourced and ridiculously long slaughterhouse supply chains have led to a huge amount of the UK population eating horse, instead of beef.

There are a whole bunch of reasons people are pissed off at this situation. People like horses, for one. I’m more of a cow girl, myself, but whatever. People also don’t like to be lied to. Me neither. That’s fine.

However, I’ve found a lot of the reaction to this whole affair pretty annoying.

It seems to me like the people who are going to find themselves eating horse are those who don’t have the money to buy anything more expensive than the ‘basics’-type brand of meat; or – and this is where it gets somewhat trickier – those who don’t know, or simply don’t take the time to consider, that the pure economics of a product that’s supposed to supply a meal at £1 is likely to have some fairly ropey processes behind it to keep the cost that low.

And what really annoys me is the fact that certain people who, I’d argue, are in a pretty damned privileged position, have taken it upon themselves to act as though people lose their right to be shocked at the presence of unwanted or unpleasant ingredients when they buy cheap food. Giles Coren, for instance: “What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?”

…Oh, shut up.

Nobody ever bought a £1 ready meal and thought it was healthy. But at the same time, I’m doing a PhD and it didn’t occur to me quite how bad things could get in the world of food until I started researching it a couple of years ago. I had a sneaking suspicion that there’d be reasons that certain brands of meat were so cheap – and had I really drilled down on that thought, I’d have probably assumed that the meat was the kinda gross bits of cow, rather than prime cuts of beef – but I was poor, and needs must.

Only as a result of having to pay real attention to my food – and only as a result of having spent many, many hours hanging out with a god damn nutritionist for a mate – have I learned the vast, and frankly kinda horrifying differences, between a low-cost, 8 for £1, mass-produced burger patty, and a 60z, quality beef burger from my local butcher that costs £1.25 for one.

And even then – even after all that – I’d never have expected my beefburger to be made of horse meat. It’s just not an assumption you tend to make.

*lengthy pause*


With that in mind, consider that most villified of horse meat ready meals, the 375g box of Findus Beef Lasagne which contains, at best, 37g of “beef.” In other words, it’s about 10% meat, and it costs a quid.

When Matt and I wrote our Spaghetti Bolognese Ready Meal Challenge post last year, we managed to create a spaghetti bolognese that wasn’t just nutritionally balanced, but also had 120g of beef in every serving…

For £1.51. For the meal.

That’s right. I just made a Findus microwave dinner look overpriced. With arguing skills like this, I ought to go into politics.

But here’s where my argument kind of falls apart. I’m starting fights with people on all sides. I resent that certain patronising, privileged people act as though those on a low income, without access to proper education about nutrition, automatically lose their right to be affronted by eating horse meat. But I’m also continually depressed by the fact that people aren’t finding the information they need on how to make themselves nutritionally balanced, healthy, hopefully-beef meals on a budget.

The information is out there, and in many cases it’s freely available – but somehow, it’s just not hitting home. In other words, what we’re doing at the moment just isn’t working. And I can’t help but think that’s got something to do with the attitude problem this whole horse meat palaver has revealed.

We need to re-educate people on the reasons they should eat real foods, and ditch the processed dinners – but we need to do so with understanding of the fact that when you’re strapped for cash and short on time, and you don’t have the luxury of a fully-stocked fridge or a variety of options for dinner, it can be hard to make the right call – be that for your own health, or simply the quality of the food you’re eating.

Things aren’t going to get any better for anyone if we keep judging each other for decisions which, in each individual circumstance, can’t really be helped. Yes, technically the fault lies with the suppliers who – somehow – slaughtered horses instead of cows. But in the wake of the scandal, most of what I’ve seen has been just another variety of snarking – a kind based on economics and education.

What we ought to be doing is focusing on making healthy, minimally processed foods appear easier to chef up. Because they are easy. God knows I can work miracles with just an egg, some dried herbs, and a tomato if I have to – and it’s the kind of dish that takes minutes to prepare and creates hardly any mess. Same with veggies – give me garlic, celery and onion and I’ve got the basis of hundreds of tasty meals.

This is the sort of thing we need to be sharing. I remember back in my food technology classes at school, and we’d learn how to make bread and butter pudding, or extraordinarily complicated-seeming cupcakes. Had I learned how to make a healthy meal out of a couple of basic ingredients back then, I’d wager I’d have headed off into the world a lot better placed to keep my weight and my budget in check.

Horse meat or no horse meat, this whole affair comes back to the access to education and information that leads to good health. Horse burgers and the obesity crisis, it seems to me, are separated by only a few degrees, and they’re equally susceptible to this kind of snobbery-based snarking – and so, we need to change our attitudes at all levels.

I promise it’ll make the world a better place.

3 thoughts on “Horse Burgers and… Snarking?”

  • Hey. So, I’m with you on the snarking etc. And I think it’s been blown out of proportion. But I think people are willfully ignorant about whats in food. I was buying food with a friend and we wanted sausages, and she went for the cheap one quid ones. So I turned it over and said, “Look, 20% pork. 20% PORK!? You don’t even want to know what the other 80% is.” And then I bought the more expensive, 100% pork sausages. But I know the next time she went shopping, she probably bought the cheap ones. And we were poor students at the time. Whenever I say anything about junk food, I’m accused of being a food snob. But they put weird stuff in junk food!

  • I think that part of the problem is that we often blame people for not going out and finding the information that, I agree, is freely available and for not pro-actively taking responsibility for policing what’s in their food, but we don’t get nearly as angry nearly as often as we should about the companies that create these concoctions that they label as food and foist off on the general public. We’ve sort of become numb to the idea that “food” contains chemicals and additives and bits of unexpected animals because we’re overwhelmingly overwhelmed with the message that this “food” is food. It’s become the norm — and people don’t often buck the norm (without a compelling reason) because they don’t know that there’s anything different to consider. I just get so annoyed that the “food” companies, who know exactly what they’re doing, don’t get as much (or more blame) as individuals who may (or may not) just be doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Whether I’m struggling with paying the bills or a millionaire, it companies spend their advertizing budget telling me to buy their “food”, then don’t they have a responsibility to actually sell real food? I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but that’s a rant that I had to get out.

  • You’re both absolutely right – it’s a marketing issue, and one which makes people make the wrong choices. I think the assumption, generally, is that food suppliers wouldn’t sell us things that weren’t good for us, because that would be wrong.

    On that, I think you guys have been far more eloquent than I can be. Alas – the horse meat has just highlighted the fact that the processed food industry is in a way more depressing state than we originally thought.

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