Cheap Meat-What is the Real Cost?

Findus Lasagne

Findus Lasagne

This post was supposed to be for a banana cake which I have made for years, but it seems quite trivial to post that while the food world has been turned upside down regarding the scandal of horse meat found in various processed beef products.

Much is being said and debated and argued over about this; we will not know for many days, or indeed months, what the outcome of the tests being carried out and the resulting action and/or legislation might be. The excellent BBC Radio 4 programme, The Food Programme continued its discussion, debate and investigation into the issue last Sunday. It’s well worth a listen for an unbiased and unemotional view. That is important because this is what this has become; an emotive issue. British people generally do not like the idea of eating horses, especially when they do not know they are eating horses. This fact in itself is scandalous.

It was claimed today that the horse meat contamination scandal was caused by a sudden ban on the use of “desinewed meat”. Desinewed meat (DSM) is produced by rubbing the remains off bones after prime cuts have been removed in a process similar to mechanically recovered meat. Producers of ready-made meals sought cheaper supplies in Europe after Britain implemented a European Union ban on describing “desinewed” beef as meat, said Dr Mark Woolf, former head of food authenticity at the Food  Standards Agency “Most of the value products had used DSM,” he added. “It was the ingredient in economy burgers and ready meals like lasagne.” The ban led supermarkets and ready-made meal producers to seek cheaper supplies in Europe.

“I don’t think people realised the significance of it and its effect on the food chain,” said Dr Woolf. “Retailers were very gung-ho about it because they are not going to pay any more for their products. It was down to their supplier. A lot of suppliers were not able to find alternative sources of cheap meat and that is when things started to go wrong. The food chain became more difficult to control, something that we have learned the hard way.”

Tesco became the latest firm to announce it was dropping French food supplier Comigel after DNA tests on the frozen bolognese were revealed. The supermarket giant took the spaghetti bolognese off the shelves when it found out it came from the same factory as Findus beef lasagne, also at the centre of the horse meat controversy. Tesco Group technical director Tim Smith said: “We are very sorry that we have let customers down.”

The bolognese was also tested for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone as animals treated with “bute” are not allowed to enter the food chain, as it is incredibly toxic to humans. The results were clear. Despite this small reassurance, this still makes me very angry.

I am angry because Tesco is a company that regularly sends back apples to farmers because they are the wrong shape, they force British dairy farmers out of business because they expect them to accept a pittance for their milk. They build monolithic sites for their supermarkets and take over as many small corners of high streets as they can, so that independent retailers such as ‘proper’ butchers are forced out of business, so no-one has anywhere else to shop. Tesco, Findus and Aldi have confirmed that ready meals they stock have been proven to contain horse meat; up to 100%. They have deceived their customers, despite Tesco claiming it spends £4 million a year on product testing.

Is it simply a labeling issue? Does the problem lie with the simple fact that people were eating something they thought was beef but has been proven to be otherwise? I have already heard this side of the argument put forward by a number of high profile members of food agencies, but surely the problems run deeper than a lack of proper labeling? How many of us would happily tuck into a ready-made lasagne if we actually knew it contained horse meat? What if it was free-range? Organic?

The problem with not knowing if horse meat is in a product or not means that if horse DNA is found in a product, this does not help to identify which part of the horse was used. It could be brain, it could be liver or cartilage. The horse could have been old or ill and given drugs, none of which is traceable if the meat has entered the food chain illegitimately. The fact that ”bute” has not been found so far does not mean it will not come up sooner or later. This could be a potential disaster for a massive sector of the food industry, not to mention a health crisis for consumers.

There are so many aspects to this debate, it is hard to know where to begin; one argument is that if you chose to eat such processed food, what can you expect? Well, not horse meat, that’s for sure! I speak as one who has never bought a ready-made lasagne in her life, but I would not wish this issue on anyone who has chosen to do so. If the packaging says that the meat is beef, the meat in the product should be beef, even if it is of a quality that not everyone would choose to buy. And herein lies the tricky, but fundamental, issue of cost and what people are prepared to spend on their food. For some people, it’s not a lot; they either choose not to or are not able to. I have long-held the view that you can eat incredibly well on a very tight budget. Blogs such as the brilliant The Skint Foodie and North/South Food show you that you can eat nutritious and inventive food without having to spend a fortune. Good food does not have to cost the earth, but it does take time and thought.

I accept that there are many people who just cannot be bothered to shop and cook with care and planning, The fact is that some people think they cannot afford to spend £8 on a free-range chicken, but these same people do not necessarily realise that the same £8 chicken can feed a family of four for three, maybe even four meals with a little imagination. It may come as a shock to some, but your meals do not even have to contain meat at all!!

This is where education comes in and I do believe that it is the key to this whole issue. Children are taught less and less about food, nutrition and cooking both at home and at school. Homes across the country, and indeed world, are filled with working parents, too busy, tired or poor to give their children the time and skills required to cook for themselves and know what they are eating. These children grow up and do not know where to begin in terms of cooking and shopping, so ready meals often become the default option. No wonder; convenient, quick and often cheap, but unfortunately, the last few weeks have shown that this convenience can come at a very high price.

A step forward has been made this week. Previously only primary schools had to give basic lessons about food preparation and hygiene, as part of the Design and Technology (D&T) curriculum. In secondary schools, it was merely a D&T option (together with textiles). There was no requirement to teach pupils about good nutrition or practical cookery in D&T.

Now, for the first time ever, it has been announced that all secondary school children are to learn about food and cookery, as part of the new National Curriculum. The Government has accepted recommendations from Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the restaurateurs leading the School Food Plan, which aim to improve the diets of the nation’s school children.

From 2014 all pupils in primary school will learn the principles of healthy eating and where food comes from. They will also be taught basic cooking techniques and how to cook a variety of savoury dishes. In secondary schools, food will be compulsory at Key Stage 3 for the first time ever for all children. Pupils will be taught about the importance of nutrition, a balanced diet, and about the characteristics of a broad range of ingredients. They will also will be taught to cook a repertoire of savoury meals and become confident in a range of cooking techniques.

Learning about food will be compulsory for every pupil up to the age of 14. The curriculum aims to ensure that, instead of baking out cup cakes and designing pizza boxes, cookery lessons will include a wide, imaginative range of savoury, healthy food.

This all sounds positive-if it will all come to fruition remains to be seen. We have seen how campaigns for food education at schools has often fallen very short of the mark. The importance of food education cannot be stressed enough. If a child is educated to know the importance of meat husbandry and how to put fresh ingredients together to make a proper meal, that child has a chance to make the right food decisions when it grows up and has to feed itself and possibly a family.

A study in Liverpool by City University London, found that cooking classes aimed at both school pupils and adults had a positive impact on eating habits, with more pupils saying they ate more fruit and veg following the sessions. Another study, carried out by the School Food Trust, which measured the impact of a national network of school-based cooking clubs for four to eight years olds, found that learning to cook improved their recognition of healthier foods – and their desire to eat them.

Positives that will hopefully come out of this are that people will think before they put processed meat into their trolleys; they may even stay away from meat in supermarkets altogether. This can only be a good thing. Supporting local suppliers who know exactly where their produce comes from and care about their customers is the only way forward. Eating less meat, but eating better meat is also a mindset which we must all try and get into, for our own health and well-being and that of our families.

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