There’s a belated sequel to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? playing in Britain at the moment – They Won’t Eat Horses, Will They? The outrage in Britain over horse DNA being detected in a whole stable of foodstuffs continues to dominate front pages. But what’s fuelling it?
It’s not about health risks; experts have quickly played down any potential risks associated with veterinary drugs present in the meat. It’s not even a problem with horsemeat itself – something enjoyed in many countries round the world. It’s with it being meat from horses. Lovely, lovely horses. For a nation of highly selective animal lovers it is unthinkable that what we ride on, bet on and feed the odd sugar-lump to could end up on our plates. Even in microscopic quantities.
It might seem wildly inconsistent that people have got so worked up about this, yet few seem so troubled by eating even cuter lambs, or by the widespread use of artificial colourings/flavourings/anythings and how they might affect us. And fewer still show interest in knowing what the animals we eat have themselves been fed on. Perhaps everyone learned the lessons from BSE which ultimately stemmed from cattle – herbivores left to their own devices – being fed ground-up bits of other cattle. Or perhaps many of us prefer to look at the price tag and not think about why our food is so cheap.
What might make at least some consumers delve deeper into what they’re consuming is realising that – as a leading food tester told me recently – you can’t just analyse a food and say exactly what it’s made of, “you need to know what you’re looking for”. So the reason we have begun finding traces of horse may not be because it has only just got into some foods, but because we’ve only just started testing for horse DNA. Which means there could be other rogue meat, or worse, that we aren’t yet testing for.
Such is our intimate relationship with food and drink – it’s on a very select list of things allowed inside us – that movies often get a reaction from audiences simply by dishing up something indelibly inedible. A personal favourite is the feast with chilled monkey brains in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. That’s partly because I was once in a roadside eatery in a remote part of Sierra Leone with only two things on the menu, fish and beef. And the fish was off. So I ordered beef and it tasted…unusual. “Is this beef?” I asked the proprietor whose English was limited. “Yes, beef”, he replied enthusiastically. I carried on but wasn’t convinced. “Beef, moo-moo?” I eventually asked again. “No, beef oo-oo” came the reply accompanied by a fine monkey mime. I ceased eating.
Making a meal of it
There’s not always that option to stop. We all know real-life stories of crises where to stave off starvation people have been forced to eat insects, snakes or worse. This necessity-is-the-mother-of-ingestion theme is a compelling one, echoed at every level across popular culture. It runs from the playful – but still deliberately disgusting – food challenges of “reality” TV shows like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, to the memorable scene in The Gold Rush where Charlie Chaplin makes a meal of eating his own shoe, all the way to the deadly dilemmas of Alive, the true story of how those who weren’t killed in a remote plane crash in the Andes kept going by eating those who were.