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Break the taboo on horsemeat - or food fraud will continue


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On the evening of 6 February 1868, 150 people arrived at London's Langham Hotel for the Banquet Hippophagique. For one and a half guineas each, equivalent to £120 today, the diners sampled a wide range of horse dishes. Horse jelly was the only dish that the epicures took exception to, considering it 'rather strong'. By comparison, the baron of horse (two sirloins left uncut at the backbone) was a triumph. Four chefs carried the baron into the dining room, accompanied by a beefeater playing 'The Roast Beef of Old England' on a trumpet. The banquet's organisers hoped to trigger a food revolution similar to that taking place in continental Europe. Before refrigeration technology made cheap meat imports from North American and Argentina a reality, growing demand for meat made prime cuts too expensive for most people. With roughly 75,000 disease-free horses slaughtered a year in Britain, the banquet organisers saw an efficient and cheap way to improve the working-class diet. The problem was convincing a sceptical public to break a centuries-old taboo. In this, the organisers failed.

Feelings of disgust, concerns about cruelty and disease, anger at the patronising attitude of the upper class reformers, patriotism and the growth of cheap meat imports ensured that 'knackerine', as Northerners called it, did not become part of the working-class diet. For some, enthusiasm for horseracing and empathy with a fellow beast of burden made the thought of eating this aristocrat of domesticated animals distasteful. For others, the suggestion made by well-heeled dietary reformers (who would never dream of eating horse themselves) that workers eat a meat usually fed to cats and dogs was an insult. Concern was also expressed about inhumane treatment and unhygienic conditions in slaughterhouses and knackers' yards. The enthusiastic adoption of horsemeat in continental Europe, particularly France in the 1850s-1860s, led Britons to reject it as a revolting foreign practice. Entrepreneurs like the Vestey brothers, who exploited new transport and refrigeration technologies to bring cheap chilled and frozen beef to Britain from the pampas and the prairies, enabled the working class to eat like the middle class by the late nineteenth century. Only the very poorest ate horse, often unwittingly. A few unscrupulous butchers, struggling to compete on price with chains such as the Vesteys and Dewhursts, mislabelled cuts of horse as beef or veal and adulterated sausages.

The British came closest to overcoming their reluctance to eat horsemeat during the world wars when popular demand for red meat outstripped supply. In both conflicts, German u-boats reduced meat imports, forcing the government to ration beef, lamb, pork, bacon and ham. The situation was most acute during the Second World War. The government encouraged civilians who wanted more meat to eat-out coupon-free or buy unrationed poultry and game, but high prices precluded this for most people. At the same time, government regulations concentrating slaughtering in a handful of large abattoirs to better control the trade, threatened to bankrupt smaller firms. These regulations overlooked the small, export-oriented trade supplying horsemeat to Belgium and France. Many of these butchers saw an opportunity to bolster their dwindling income by moving into the horsemeat trade across the UK. With demand high, export markets disrupted and supply of horses increasing as farms mechanised, the stage was set for a dramatic boom in horsemeat consumption. West Ham became the epicentre of this burgeoning trade: in 1938, no horses were slaughtered for domestic consumption but by 1942, 2,000 horses were killed, rising to a peak of 19,000 in 1947. This was legal, but the long-standing taboo against eating horse gave rise to a thriving black market with butchers and caterers passing it off as higher-value beef or veal.

However, only the poorest broke the taboo. Butchers who sold horse openly were confined to the poorest neighbourhoods in large cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. Dietary conservatism made it difficult for the Ministry of Food to persuade consumers to try horse, let alone whalemeat. Caterers and retail butchers bought horsemeat, which they mislabelled or used to adulterate other meat products. Trade was brisk. Hunts complained that they could no longer get horsemeat to feed to their hounds. At auction, horsemeat dealers outbid farmers seeking cart horses, while rustlers targeted ponies on Dartmoor, Exmoor and in the New Forest. In 1948, the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society caused a national scandal when it exposed the extent of this black market trade. Despite politicians' expressions of concern, the problem did not go away, resurfacing in 1952, until meat rationing ended in 1954.

With global demand for red meat now increasing as developing countries adopt a Western diet rich in animal protein, meat prices continue to rise. Used to consuming larger quantities of red meat than their predecessors in interwar Britain, shoppers face a difficult choice. If they want to continue doing so, and are unwilling to break the taboo on eating horse, the likelihood of their burgers including 'traces of horse' will only increase, as squeezed producers try to make their businesses pay. Like all enforcement drives, the current horsemeat investigation is temporary and partial. How could it be otherwise when the Food Standards Authority (FSA) employs around 800 meat inspectors, down from 1,700 at the height of the BSE crisis, and similar to a modest county police force? While the FSA can rely on help from police and trading standards for now, both these services are overstretched. The adulteration of meat products with horsemeat is an unscrupulous practice that the shady end of the meat trade has followed since the 1860s. Today's black marketeers - dishonest meat traders and food companies - need only wait for public and political attention to wane, before returning to their old, profitable ways.

With British diners more adventurous than their nineteenth-century forbears, it is perhaps time to end this taboo, put horse burgers on the menu alongside ostrich and venison, thereby ending the black market trade. The virtues of horse as a source of protein might be easier to sell to a sceptical public than insects or an unfamiliar fish like gurnard. As well as diversifying our palates, we can go back to the future, paying more for our meat and eating less of it with meat-free Mondays. Maybe a 'nudge' is needed to the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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