Anton Coaker: We no longer know where our meat has come from
Obviously, the shock horror 'horse-meat-in-supermarket-burgers' story is a gift to me. Never knowing what drivel I'm going to write about from week to week is seldom a burden – something always occurs as my disorganised days roll along, but it's an unexpected treat when something like this turns up. It saves me no end of bother.
So where to begin? Well, it turns out, from the radio phone-ins I've heard , that an awful lot of punters aren't actually that vexed about eating horse meat. Obviously they'd rather it was labelled accordingly. A few didn't even sound overly concerned about what was in their burgers, full stop – as long as it was safe.
Fantastic, here's a bit of free market research showing conclusively that we can start the Dartmoor Pony Salami Company right away. The day we all grasp that nettle will be the day the future of the semi-feral moorland ponies is secured. A local, reliable outlet for the surplus colts and old mares would reward us for putting time to the blessed creatures.
Obviously there would be a downside. If the 'do-gooders' couldn't claim the poor little mites were being shipped halfway round Europe to be slaughtered by some unspeakable 'Johnny Foreigner', they'd have a job rattling the old collection tin.
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It did occur to me to speculate where the horse meat in the burgers came from in the first place – if packers can't identify what's in their product, how on earth do they know what conditions it was slaughtered in? Here is evidence that buying from such unknown distant sources is handing over any control of what you eat. Careful lobbying keeps the UK from adopting clear 'country of origin' labelling, and even if it is 'what it says on the tin', loopholes mean you still have little idea where it's come from.
I wouldn't say you take your life in your hands buying from the budget range –we do, after all, tend to cook stuff before we eat it, and our ancestors were the ones whose guts evolved to eat much dodgier meats than what we generally scoff nowadays. But, is it what you want? Choosing the 'cheapo' range allows such an extended and shady chain of supply that it's almost impossible to show where the meat came from.
Which brings us neatly on to the concept of modern supply chains and the jolly old supermarkets. There was a time, well within living memory, when most people outside of the largest cities bought meat from a butcher they knew personally. He very likely did his own slaughtering, having bought animals from a farmer he knew and dealt with year after year.
Most of our towns arose about a weekly market, where butchers could come and bid for fattened stock from the farms about the district. All manner of professions depended on the trade which developed over centuries. The localised variations where livestock outnumbered customers, or vice versa, and where thinner soil didn't suit fattening youngstock, gave rise to the complex trade which shaped our communities.
Drovers moved beasts the length of the country, the natural supply and demand balancing what animals had to move where. Valleys where beasts would fatten on lush pasture, or easily worked arable land allowed the fattening of pigs on corn, and lambs on roots, created great wealth.
But with the coming of motorised transport this whole complex system has been turned upside down in the space of a few decades. Local markets have evaporated like morning fog on a sunny day. High street butchers, where the boss's name is written over the door, and the beast hanging in his cold room can be traced to a farm within walking distance, have likewise become rarer. Abattoirs have become ever larger in the interests of efficiency, and most of us buy our meat from huge and effectively faceless supermarket corporations.
All in the name of saving a few pence, so we can buy a smarter smart phone, or loaf on a sunnier holiday beach. We've dumped whole professions in the name of convenience.
And it's led us to discover that what's on the shelf has been carted all over the continent and the chain of custody is so tenuous that we don't know what we're eating. How curious.