We are in the middle of the biggest food scare in several years. Such things appear to be cyclical – whether it’s BSE or salmonella, every decade is not complete without one, and every time it leads to a seismic shift in people’s attitudes to the food they eat.
The horse burger scandal highlights just how complicated the modern food supply chain has become: a chain in which meat travels thousands of miles for slaughter in one country, processing in another and packaging in yet another. Then it is sent to its final destination for retail and consumption.
There are those, me included, who wouldn’t be opposed to eating horse if that is how it was labelled. Those people probably had visions of healthy horses being humanely dispatched in a sanitary slaughterhouse. But as the scandal unfolds, more unsavoury details have emerged. For instance, the horse meat discovered in many household brands is thought to be from countries such as Romania, where horses are still used to pull carts and ploughs.
Until a short time ago, these horses were sold for export when they had passed their prime, but a ban on live exports was recently introduced to prevent the spread of disease. To get round this ban, the Romanians began exporting slaughtered horse meat instead. That image of a healthy horse going into the food chain was far from reality and the thought of eating such meat, whether intentionally or not, is far less palatable.
We must not forget that just a few months ago the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) tried to engineer a food scare on this scale for game meat. This intention was to scare the public into fearing that any game shot with lead ammunition would poison them. As a result, game sales would plummet, and the only way to avoid this would be to change to non-lead ammunition. Sneaky, but true – they even admitted it in meeting notes that were leaked to our office.
Fortunately, the attempt didn’t work, even after pressuring the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The FSA simply stated that people who eat over 100 game birds a year should think about cutting down, and that pregnant women should avoid game birds shot with lead. The former is only a tiny minority of the population and the latter are advised not to eat anything, so no real change there. Moreover, it didn’t place any limit on game mammals – so according to the FSA, you can eat as much venison as you can shoot.
While some organisations have tried to rubbish game for containing lead or being cruel, never before has there been a better reason to eat it. To those of us who take to the fields with a gun or rifle, this scandal has largely passed us by. Our meat travels no further than a few miles and the excess gets sold to game dealers to enter the food chain for those who don’t shoot but want to know what they are eating. We know shooting is more than just pulling the trigger – it is looking after the land and providing food for the table. That is why the Countryside Alliance campaigns across all fronts, from research into woodcock to promoting rural retailers.
Ironically, at a time of rising deer populations, venison is shunned in favour of cheap foreign imports. But recent events are likely to bring about a massive change in attitude. The nation has been mis-sold for too long. Never before have have we had such an opportunity to promote the healthy, local and ethical meat that shooting provides.