The Magic Mincer

Hugh Pennington

The British aversion to eating horse is strong and longstanding. ‘Horse-Eating’, the lead piece in Charles Dicken’s Household Words for 19 April 1856, explains why:

Prejudice, and nothing else! the same prejudice which makes the English refuse to taste frogs and escargots, though both are esteemed and expensive dishes on the continent; which makes the Orientals reject the flesh of the hog, though here we know how good it is; which causes, in short, nearly one-half the world to loathe nutriment which is greedily consumed by the other half; which has given rise to the true, but unreasonable fact, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

The problem isn’t taste. On his last march, Captain Scott’s diary entry for 18 February 1913 read: ‘Temp -5.50. At Shambles Camp.’ Captain Oates’s ponies had been shot there on the way to the Pole. ‘Here with plenty of horsemeat we have had a fine supper... new life seems to come with greater food immediately.’ On the next day: ‘To-night we had a sort of stew fry of pemmican and horseflesh, and voted it the best hoosh we ever had on a sledge journey.’

But its taste makes horse an easy illegal substitute for other meats. Household Words again:

There are not less than two millions of horses in France. Whatever small portion of all these animals is used for food, is very trifling in quantity, and is always served up by fraudulent means. In Paris there is a daily clandestine trade in horse-flesh, both for the restaurants, who serve it as fillet of venison; and for the poor, who in that case pay more for it than its real market value. A possible result of the clandestine sale is, that glandered horses may be brought to market; and it is now an established fact that that terrible disease, the glanders, is communicable to the human system. But, by a public and open sale, under the same authorised inspection as is exercised at the abattoirs, all danger of the kind is avoided.

For France in 1856 to be read as Britain in 2013, only one significant substitution is needed: for glanders read phenylbutazone. In both cases the human health risk is hypothetical. Glanders is a lung disease of horses. It is extinct in Britain but used to be transmitted, very occasionally, to people working with horses. It is not caught by eating horse meat. Phenylbutazone taken over long periods in high doses has been associated with human cases of aplastic anaemia; only tiny amounts are found in meat from horses treated with it.

So, just as in France 150 years ago, in Britain and Europe today the fraudster’s clandestine trade in horse meat continues, and the poor are still being ripped off. That the health of the victims is unlikely to be harmed is good news for them; but it makes life difficult for the regulators. Unlike a bad butcher contaminating his meat and causing a food poisoning outbreak that can be tracked back to him in days, food fraudsters can operate for years. Nailing them more often needs an informer and forensic accountants than epidemiologists and bacteriologists. An anonymous tip-off to Rotherham Borough Council in 1996 led to the discovery of a secret boning shed where thousands of tonnes of condemned poultry meat destined for pet food had feathers, mould and green bits removed. The remaining flesh was soaked in brine, packaged, and moved to cold stores, wholesalers and retailers, who sold it to the public. In various guises this had been going on for more than a decade. The investigation, known as Operation Fox, cost £750,000 and took four years, with 300 interviews and the analysis of 500,000 documents. The perpetrators made £2.5 million; but in 2000 they were sentenced to an aggregate of 18 years in prison.

Authenticity testing would not have exposed the fraud. But sometimes it does. Analysis of vodka regularly detects counterfeits which contain much less ethanol than the genuine product as well as levels of methanol ten times higher than is safe. And the massive Chinese melamine scandal in 2008 came to light because infants had fallen ill with kidney stones and associated renal problems. Their milk powder had been produced by the Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group from watered down milk to which melamine had been added. As well as causing kidney stones, melamine gives a false positive result for protein, the milk component that is tested to detect dilution. The adulterators had covered up one adulteration with another. Three hundred thousands infants became ill, with six deaths; two perpetrators were executed.

In Food and its Adulterations (1855), Andrew Wynter wrote:

that the London milking-pail goes as often to the pump as to the cow we have no manner of doubt. To bring the goods up to a delicate cream colour, it is common to swing round a ball of annatto in the can.

Annatto, E160b, is extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree. For many years it has been put into Red Leicester, Cheddar and Gloucester cheeses. It is said to have health benefits because it is rich in antioxidants.

House of Commons committees have been investigating food fraud for centuries. In 1783, four million pounds of ‘tea’ was found to be manufactured annually in England from sloe and ash leaves. The horse meat inquiry has been conducted by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Its latest report was published on 14 February. At the oral evidence session on 30 January the witnesses had quite a hard time, but defended themselves vigorously. A baptism of fire for Catherine Brown, who became chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on 16 October last year. And from frying pan onto the grill for Tim Smith, her immediate predecessor, who joined Tesco as Technical Director on 15 October; it was the Tesco beef burger, found by the Irish Food Safety Authority to be 29 per cent horse, that really started the crisis.

The FSA’s chair, Jeff Rooker, was the first witness before the committee. He said that on 8 July 2010 he was summoned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and told, without discussion, that the FSA in England would lose its responsibilities for diet and nutrition, food composition and food authenticity. But the FSA still commissions the authenticity testing, and pays. DNA tests cost £200 to £500 each. Tim Smith told the committee that testing products from every site that supplies them once a year will cost Tesco ‘north of £1 million’.

The committee’s recommendations focus exclusively on testing. Testing is necessary, both to establish the scale of the problem, and to help in the identification of those responsible. But an enormous number of random tests would have to be done to give a statistically meaningful assurance that there is no problem. Its main value will be to deter potential fraudsters. The essential task for the investigators is to find the place of transubstantiation: the magic mincer, or the white van, or the cold store, that meat goes into as horse and comes out of as beef.

More than 700 authenticity tests have been done in Scotland in the last two years after tip-offs about beef being used in products sold as lamb (beef is cheaper). There has been no outrage. It is our prejudice against eating horse that has engendered the current media storm. Its wind has filled the sails of those who hate supermarkets and want us to patronise local butchers. It will cause the food industry to do much testing for brand protection. Of 2501 tests reported by the end of last week, only 29 (on seven products already known to be positive) gave evidence of gross contamination or adulteration. So far, so good. But an industry testing programme will not tell us whether a high street butcher operates a magic mincer. I have investigated two big food poisoning outbreaks. Both were caused by local butchers behaving badly. One had been voted Scottish Butcher of the Year by his customers shortly before his meat killed 18 of them. As far as I know, neither dealt in horse flesh. It would have been better if they had. Unlike cattle and sheep, horses do not carry E.coli O157, the nastiest food poisoning organism by far. If I had to eat steak tartare, I would ask for horse.


  • 19 February 2013 at 11:35am
    J K says:
    Thank you, this is fascinating.

    Presumably the relatively higher cost of livestock products - and the multiple stages in the slaughter, package and delivery process offer greater opportunities to fraudsters.

    However I was reminded of another food scandal - the creation of soy sauce from human hair in China (2004). It caught the authorities by surprise largely because no one thought to look for it, not least because soya beans are so cheap they would seem difficult to undercut. Nevertheless a chemical amino acid extraction process applied to human hair created a sauce that could almost pass for a low-end hydrolyzed soy sauce. This sauce was then quietly sold in other countries, suggesting some collusion higher up the political food chain. According to one report a single factory was processing up to 10 tonnes of human hair a day.

    I was teaching in Hong Kong at the time and for many of my students the scandal seemed to be a trigger for political consciousness.

    The horse meat scandal has caused some hand-wringing, a determination to increase testing and a few mealy-mouthed discussions on whether we eat too much meat. Oddly however, the debate has side-stepped the foundation for the British 'prejudice' against eating horse: presumably in its first instance, not because the taboo is based on 'dirt' - as it may be with snails (and in other cultures would be regarding pork) - but because slaughtering horses seems unbefitting - an unjustifiable cruelty on a creature regarded as attractive and intelligent.

    Admitting this as the source of our revulsion, would expose the hypocrisy of our attitudes towards eating other animals. Mass culture tends towards ironing out such hypocrisies - but depressingly the most likely consequence of the scandal will be the introduction 'pure horse meat' products in UK supermarkets - beginning at the high end, with steak tartares and the like. Once trendy cheaper products will then emerge. As a vegetarian it's depressing to watch an opportunity to pose questions on whether meat is a necessary and ethically defensible part of anyone's diet, being comprehensively missed.

  • 28 February 2013 at 11:58am
    iandouglas says:
    You'd find that horse tastes just like steak tartare. (Though a bit richer.)