[Following the discovery that packets of Findus Beef Lasagne, together with beefburgers and other products from numerous supermarkets, contained up to 100% horsemeat, there's an outcry across Europe]
If there’s one thing my Mum knows quite a bit about, it’s processed food.
At a time when women were expected to stay quietly at home cooking for their husbands, in the forties Mum was general manager of a large factory making potted meats. Yes, potted meats – remember them? Little jars of pork, chicken and beef.
“How did you know it was actually beef you were processing?” I challenged her at the weekend, at the height of the horse-for-cow scandal. She went puce with indignation.
“Because we brought all the animals straight into the factory. We had an army of women with cleavers chopping them all up”.
I didn’t go into detail, but Mum said they used to go down to the docks at Tilbury to check the produce off the boats from the north.
My Dad worked in the food industry too. He was a chemist: a food scientist. He invented pickles for a living. Somewhere at home we have the original handwritten recipe for Heinz Piccalilli. I remember going to the factory he managed on Newcastle’s Quayside. They made minced chicken: I saw the chickens come in one side, and tins of chicken gunk coming out the other. He wore a white coat and the women wore little white hats and hairnets.
After 50 years of bickering about almost everything in life, my Mum and I have reached total agreement on this horse issue. The scandalous thing about this whole affair isn’t really about corrupt dealers in Romania, or France, or Ireland, or wherever the horses cantered into our food chain. It’s about us, the British consumers.
The bottom line is: you get what you pay for. Mum says it started back in the fifties with the supermarkets. Spurred on by the shallowness of the great British wallet, they began to put such price pressure on suppliers that the only solution was to downgrade the product. Welcome to the world of the own-brand.
If you buy own-branded products – and who doesn’t at some time? – be under no illusion: you have lowered your standards. They can masquerade as “Finest”, or “Best”, or whatever the marketing department calls it, but at the end of the day: if you want the “finest” hamburger mince, go to a proper butcher, ask for a piece of sirloin (hamburger mince should be fatty, not lean), and mince your own. And make your own mayonnaise too. From one real free-range egg yolk and a spoonful of mustard.
Who can forget their first taste of own-brand baked beans? Of course they don’t taste like Heinz: they were, and still are, made with cheaper ingredients. Scientists like my Dad were employed to improve the flavour, but they could never match the quality of fine ingredients.
What we’re experiencing now is the inevitable consequence of the 1950s housewife’s sacrifice of quality for quantity. We waste nearly half the food we buy, yet, if we ignored all the two-for-one offers, and only bought what we actually need from local suppliers, we’d be no worse off financially, and a lot better off as a nation. This isn’t Mum speaking, by the way. I may sound like an old woman sounding off about a past golden age: I’m talking about real food, which I’m passionate about.
I don’t mind eating horse if that’s what it says on the label. My youngest son Sam and I ate spicy horse when we were in Italy a few years ago and we absolutely loved it. It isn’t the species of the ingredient that’s alarming, but the fact that consumer pressure has forced the suppliers of frozen lasagne to find an ingredient that even cheaper than the scrapings off a cow’s spine they used to use.
I predict we’re hours away from the announcement that half the horses we’ve been eating are diseased – horse Aids is endemic in Romania. We’ll also be told that there’s no threat to human health.
But I hope that all this won’t deflect us from the real scandal: which is that for decades we have refused to pay for quality, and now we’re eating the consequences.