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Food Safety After Horse Meat Burgers

If you take the trouble to grow your own, then it’s a pretty fair bet that you, like us, are interested in the quality and provenance of the food you eat and feed to your family.

This latest scandal of horse meat in beefburgers is particularly worrying. Now I don’t think that Tesco or the other supermarkets involved are to blame, although technically the retailer is responsible for what they sell, it’s the centralisation and globalisation of the food supply chain. We’re not talking a few hundred affected burgers, we’re talking many thousand if not millions.

In pre-supermarket days, you went to a butcher who may well have been the slaughterer of the meat he sold. He bought the animals he required from the local market and probably knew the farmer who reared it. If he bought a horse to slaughter then the whole town would know about it the next day.

The British have never been keen on eating horses, despite the fact it is by all accounts a good quality, healthy lean meat. Even in the war it was not popular and horses were more likely to end up in dog food than on the table. The French, however, have a different attitude. I must admit to being shocked in a French supermarket to seeing a pig’s head, a cow’s head and a horses head sign over the chiller aisle. I’ve heard that this goes back to the seige of Paris when they ate the horses.

Regardless, we’re now in a situation where the supermarket chain doesn’t buy beefburgers from a local butcher or even a regional wholesaler, it’s now pan-European suppliers sourcing from equally huge meat wholesalers etc.

You might ask what the problem is with this. After all, the economies of scale help bring down costs and that’s a good thing. Do you (be honest) want to pay more for your food? Well I think it’s this: imagine it wasn’t horse meat but some bug like e-coli? Don’t forget we have strict controls on the age and what parts of cattle are allowed for human consumption because of BSE (Mad Cow disease).

I’d have thought it easier to get a sick or elderly animal through than one of a completely different species.

If a small supplier, say a local butcher, were to go off the rails or a single shop save a few pounds by using condemned meat or, through no fault, contaminate or infect food the worst case is that people would be affected in their tens, perhaps a few hundred. Pretty terrible but compare that with something sold in the thousands by a chain of thousands of stores. We could find ourselves living in some sort of food-poisoning apocalypse.

Just in case you think I’m going over the top:

Tesco have 3054 stores in the UK, Morrisons 455, Asda more than 500 and Sainsbury 1063. And whilst we’re talking about beefburgers. McDonalds have 1200 restaurants in the UK, Burger King over 500.

I know all of these chains take great care to ensure safety, but it’s their sheer scale and that of their suppliers that presents the risk How big is it? I don’t know, you’d need a team of food hygiene experts and statisticians to quantify that and to compare it with the risks of hundreds or thousands of independents with arguably lower standards but less potential to cause harm.

And as a PS – has anyone tested their minced beef to see what is actually in it?

Posted in Allotment Garden Diary

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