Horsemeat scandal: Why mixed ingredients always cause trouble


The horsemeat-for-beef crisis has more than a whiff of a previous "sub-prime" scandal about it, writes Colm O'Regan.

It is now four weeks since the horsemeat scandal first reared its distinctive mane. When the news of an Irish burger that was almost 30% horsemeat broke, it was the source of much mirth.

This was, in part, due to the fact that the words "horse" and "burger" contain two of the racier vowel sounds and are, therefore, innately funny words - so the crisis lent itself to jokesmithery. A debacle involving echidna DNA in a Danish would have been more soberly treated. (Although, on second thoughts…)

As the days passed and it turned out that much of the European industry is involved, it's become less funny. In fact, recent samples of jokes have been found to only contain faint traces of humour.

For a while, it looked like little Ireland was the equicentre of this problem, but thankfully for us it turns out everyone's at it. News of widespread wrong-doing comes as a huge relief to the first person caught.

This isn't the first time there have been international revelations that dubious products have been marked as fit for consumption.

It's not that long ago that sub-prime mortgages were mixed with slightly better products and marketed as prime cuts. Once bought, these products made their consumers (banks, pension funds) very, very sick. In fact some banks caught the zombie virus from them.

And just like the burgers, the packaging of these minced assets made them seem a whole lot more attractive than they actually were.

Some labellers are in trouble - accused of rating some products that contained slurry, as juicy steak.

The rating agency Standard and Poor's (which would be a great name for a processed food company) is being sued by the US Justice Department for the way it handed out triple-A ratings to securities that the department alleges S&P knew were risky.

In one internal email, an S&P analyst says: "We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it." (And probably if it was structured by horses also.)

Now that the meat scales have been lifted from our eyes, will we be permanently aware of the risk of what exactly we're consuming?

And so what if it's horse? There is an emotional attachment in some countries. After all, the classic childhood book Black Beauty was not about an Aberdeen Angus.

Although there's nothing wrong with eating horse, we'd rather pretend we're eating beef. When I'm making Bolognese, I don't hold the raw mince up to my nose to savour the flesh. I just dump it onto the pan and hope the tomato-stuff will do its job.

I eschew the expensive mince - in the darker packaging with scripted typeface that indicates the involvement of some sort of "artisan" - in favour of chewing the cheaper variety. Mince made from a substance that might as well be called Meatax™. I don't want to think about what's in it.

Image caption What you see is what you get

Similarly, I want my burgers well camouflaged inside a burger bun. The attractiveness of a burger is the hidden meat-ish, rusky, savoury surprise hidden inside a pair of nondescript pieces of Breadex™.

A friend of mine has a habit of opening his burger and picking out the bits he doesn't like and when he does this I look away, afraid of what I might see.

The point is I don't want to know. The nice man in the shop/restaurant has put out a thing for me and I'm not going to ask too many questions. I have rights that I choose not to use. And since this crisis has broken, I'm still eating burgers.

I'm not the only one. In the financial world, after all we've been through, sub-prime loans are actually making a comeback, as record low interest rates cause investors to chase returns elsewhere.

Which is fine as long as they know what they're buying. If you're selling sub-prime products to investors, it should be less like eating a burger - hidden inside a bun - more like eating a doner kebab.

While a doner kebab is not exactly a paragon of transparency, it is very clearly a giant rotating pile of glistening, squelchy, compressed, mixed "something". No other processed food provider so proudly displays - IN THE WINDOW - such an unattractive object from which your lunch is sliced. But you still go in and buy it.

You can't really say fairer than that.

If consumers, for economic and other reasons, are going to mince their worlds, then at least they should be left in no doubt what they're eating. Like the kebab in the window, processors could sell what they like as long as their packaging shows the factories - the snapshots of giant, quivering piles of the contents, without pictures of salads, breadcrumb coatings and barbecues.

In all their sub-prime glory.