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Science/Fiction

The problem with horses for courses

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

Problems with horses for courses

(Copyright: Getty Images)

What’s fuelling the current outrage over mislabelled meat? As a string of movies have shown, people react strongly when they are served the unexpected.

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.

Dining on ourselves might seem the ultimate taboo, with the most potential for dramatic shocks. There are countless cinematic cannibals from Hannibal Lecter through to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other films that far out-gross it in imagery, if not box office success. But what the furore over horsemeat shows is that our greatest food fear isn’t being compelled to eat something nauseating or taboo.  It’s only finding out afterwards that you’ve done so. The deception sticks in the throat long after the food has been digested.

That’s why although there are many movie movements where a character discovers they’ve been food-winked into snacking on something stomach turning – notable examples being in Theatre of Blood (pet dog), The War of the Roses (pet dog again) and Diner (er, Mickey Rourke’s penis) – the absolute classic of culinary duplicity remains Soylent Green. Watched today it’s creaky and few are unaware of the ending. But it retains its power because it combines the widest possible deceit, fooling the entire population, with the biggest taboo – cannibalism.

The current concerns over horsemeat aren’t quite at that level, but they still involve huge numbers of people being deliberately misled into eating something that, however harmless, they would not have chosen to. While indigestion, indignation and anger are all understandable, a better main course of action might be to follow the lead of Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. Thawed out in a future where everything, even the food, is safe but bland he manages to find somewhere underground where they still flip burgers. He orders one, and takes a mouthful. It’s then explained to him there are no cows down there and that he’s eating rat. Stallone hesitates for a moment, then takes another bite, saying: “It’s the best burger I’ve had in years.”

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