The horsemeat scandal shows there is no such thing as 'cheap meat'

Horse and cows

The horsemeat scandal has left many UK consumers with a nasty taste in the mouth, but it may have a positive effect if it encourages more of us to think about what we are putting into our shopping trolleys.

The scandal broke on 16 January, when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found traces of equine DNA in beefburgers being sold in supermarkets across the country.

Since then supermarkets such as Tesco, Iceland, Lidl and Aldi have been forced to recall products in Ireland and the UK.

Fast-food chain Burger King has admitted that its burgers were contaminated and some “beef” lasagnes made by frozen-food company Findus have been found to contain 100 per cent horsemeat.

The UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has said he expects governments across the continent to launch legal action against suppliers he accused of “fraud and a conspiracy against the public.” Two slaughterhouses in Romania are thought to be at the heart of the ongoing investigation. “It is absolutely unacceptable that consumers are being passed off with one product when they buy another,” Paterson said.

The wider issue is how the goal of big brands to drive down supply prices and increase profit margins is impacting not only consumers – who are literally being fed a lie – but the consumed. “Cheap meat” in general is an oxymoron; it costs more than consumers care to think about in environmental terms, and animals always pay the ultimate price.

Food companies chasing the bottom line can cut costs by sourcing meat from countries with few or no animal welfare laws, which can provide cheaper beef for having spent next to nothing on feeding and housing their cows. And they can make their beef cheaper still – by making it from horses.

If some of the biggest companies in the UK can’t trust their suppliers, then how can consumers trust those companies? If the horsemeat scandal has proved one thing, it’s that you know where you are with a vegetable.

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