Horsemeat Scandal: A Reason To Shop Locally?

If you live in the UK, or follow the news, you’ll know all about the Horsemeat Scandal.

Simply put, back in January horse DNA was found in various supermarket dishes claiming they were made with Beef. At first, the traces were small, but soon escalated as more and more Supermarket ready-meals, burgers, and other meat-based products were found to contain more than an inconsequential amount of equine bits.

The mainstream media, as you might expect, galloped to this story with all the enthusiasm of a young Colt going outside for the first time. The stories were fast, hard, and shocking. Tescos, Aldi, Lidl, Sainsburys, and even upmarket waitrose and community-focused Co-Op have been effected affected. Each had to withdraw products from the shelves after horse DNA was found in products promising 100% Beef.

Local shopping for food.
Is it time to ditch the Supermarket?

It’s been over a month since the original story broke, but there’s no sign yet of it ending. Just the other day, the FSA announced it was extending tests to include kebab meat and gelatine.

Already, more and more consumers are swearing off meat, saying the idea of eating the cousin of last year’s derby winder just isn’t cricket.

I’ve refrained from posting anything to date, simply because I’ve wanted to see how this pans out. But after a month of watching and thinking, I’m ready to add my thoughts to an already overcrowded stage.

Taboo? But hardly uncommon.

First of all, eating horse, while culturally taboo here in the UK, isn’t exactly unusual. Many cultures eat Horsemeat as a regular dish, and according to Wikipedia, over 4.7 million horses a year find their way to the table in countries from Central Asia to Europe and South America.

In other words, eating horses isn’t as rare as we’d like to believe. Nor does it necessarily make us evildoers.

Yes, as a species, humans eat much more beef than horse. (If you’re curious, we ate an estimated 56.5 million metric tons of Beef and Veal as a world in 2010)

The world is getting more crowded

We’re living in a world with increasing obesity and population. We can only feed just so many people with the resources we have — one planet.

Rearing animals for meat is very carbon intensive. In fact, for every pound of beef you get to the table, another 10 pounds of grain are needed to grow that beef. In other words, raring cows for meat is a carbon-intensive process. And if we ate less meat, the world would be a better place, both in terms of global hunger and in terms of environmental wellbeing. And that’s before you account for methane production from a bovine’s rear end.

These sausages are made on-site
Local butchers make their own sausages.

As food stocks get lower and lower, we as a society need to understand that rearing certain animals for meat will become untenable. We’ll be eating more vegetables, more pulses and grains. And we’ll be getting our protein from smaller animals which are less carbon intensive.

How small? Well, it’s inevitable that we’ll reserve mammals for special occasions, and just go for the protein kings: Insects.

But I digress. In a world where energy is precious, and food is precious, I can also see a future where we do start eating animals that are culturally taboo today, provided we can cope with the physiological impact of eating a horse, or a donkey… or even our dearly departed pet.

Shocking, isn’t it? I can’t say I’d want to eat an animal I’d loved and cared for its entire life. Certainly not my dogs, or a pet cat.

But is this sentimentality what’s got us into this muddle in the first place?

Can you really stomach where meat comes from?

My good friend Robert Llewellyn and I have talked at length about meat eating in the past. Like me, he’s a liberal minded individual who has spent his fair share of time working with animals.

Like me, his own guilt often pushes him in places he’s not necessarily comfortable with. Like dealing with meat-eating. He eats meat. I eat meat. But we both feel a little apologetic about it, in a kind of middle-class liberal guilty way.

But Robert has managed to overcome this with a simple test, something he’s proposed several times and I’ve come to agree with.

My local Butcher
Are you as comfortable with where meat comes from as your butcher is?

If you can hunt (or rear) an animal, kill it, watch it die, skin it, butcher it and cook it, then you deserve to eat meat.

If you can’t do any of the above, then perhaps you should be vegetarian.

So what about you? Could you eat meat that you’d killed? As a kid, I remember seeing rabbits and pheasants hanging outside the door. Often gifts from the local gamekeeper, they would hang there for a few days until animal was ready to eat. Then they were butchered, cooked, and eaten.

And they tasted good.

Since then, I’ve worked as a mom to introduce my kids to as many different dishes as possible. They’ve eaten rabbit and hare. They’ve eaten ostrich. They’ve eaten a whole collection of game and fish. Not just your standard british fare of chicken, pork, lamb and beef.

And I’ve made no bones about where the meat comes from. If what my kids are eating was once a small, cute bunny rabbit, I say so.  And we talk about foodchains.

Do you really need meat?

These days, we try to spend a fair part of our week eating no meat at all. We have vegetarian-based dishes, which I hope reinforces the notion that meat isn’t something we as humans need. Essentially, we try to have a flexitarian diet. (Now there’s a fancy word)

More veg, sir?
You could eat more veg, you know.

We suffer no dire consequences, and actually, I feel much better when I stay off the meat for a few nights, although the lure of pork pies and sausages mean I normally fall off the wagon if I stay meat-free too long.

For health reasons too, it helps me. I’ve got Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). In my case, it’s caused by ten years of HRT battering my Liver, but I have to be sensible about the qantities and qualities of meat I eat.

So, eating less meat, or none at all, could actually improve your life. Try it.

Supermarkets don’t help

Before Supermarkets anonymised our weekly shop, we went down our local high-street  where everyone knew you and your business.

Admittedly, the latter bit wasn’t always welcome, but you generally knew where the food came from. Where it was grown. Who the butcher was. And when things went off or tasted bad, you told them the next time you visisted.

Supermarkets have changed this. We’ve become removed from where our food comes from. It arrives on neat little shelves in hermetically-sealed packages with best before and use by dates.

A lot of the time, that food has been flown around the world to get to you. It’s used a ton of carbon to get there, and gets pumped full of things designed to prolong its shelf-life.

In order to deliver the prices consumers want, and the consistency they demand, supermarkets have to do some crazy things.

They have multiple suppliers, with food going from place to place to ensure it reaches the supermarket in the best condition without incurring high overheads.  Even the staff in the supermarket can’t tell you where that piece of beef came from, or where those potatoes were grown.

Only a little barcode gives the game away: a little, incomprehensible code which tells a computer somewhere where this food came from before it reached your cart.

That’s not accountable. And it’s not user-friendly.

Essentially, the prices we pay at supermarkets are terribly under-inflated and completely unsustainable. As a society, we’ve got used to not paying the true price for food, and not caring where it comes from.

If it’s tasty, looks good, and lasts a week, that’s all we care about.

Lowering prices artificially isn’t new though. Anyone who remembers the Milk price crisis from the 90s will remember that supermarkets almost destroyed the UK milk industry because of undercutting prices and refusing to pay a fair price per liter of milk collected from UK farms. I know. my dad worked in the industry.

We just need to make sure the same doesn’t happen to our other foods.

The solution? Make friends with your highstreet.

I hate supermarkets. They’re big, noisy, impersonal, and full of screaming kids, rude people and stressed staff.

So for the past three years, my wife and I have spent our weekends doing an alternative type of shopping: the high-street.

My local greengrocers on Gloucester Road, Bristol.
Gardener's Patch, Gloucester Road, Bristol

And by this, I mean Gloucester Road in Bristol, not a street full of so-called ‘highstreet brands’.

Gloucester Road is how the UK used to be. There are lots of small, independent shops, all selling their own little specialities. There’s a fishmonger, a number of butchers, greengrocers and bakers. There are a smattering of hardware stores, and even an independent games retailer.

Every Friday or Saturday, we make an old-fashioned shopping list on our new-fangled iPhones. Then, on Saturday morning, either I or my wife head out early and grab the bargains.

Our butchers of choice (T&PA Murrays) are wonderful. They know us well, and give us free marrowbones for our dogs. They have a great selection of fresh, local meats, cheeses and condiments.

A weekly shop there, including meat for three or four days, sandwich ham, dog-training meat, cheeses, and jams costs us between £50 and £70. That’s for four people, and two dogs.

My local butchers can tell you where the meat came from. They can tell you what was in it. And then we use that fresh, local, organic meat to cook our own home-made dishes at home. No sauces, no packets, and no unexpected surprises.

Similarly, our greengrocer (Gardener’s Patch) is equally blessed with a good selection of fruit and veg. Because they go with local suppliers who don’t or can’t go with supermarkets, the prices are low too. Three large bags of vegetables and fruit for the week (two pieces of fruit a day for four packed lunches, five times a week, pus extra for snacking) costs us around £20-£30, depending on season and what we pick up.

While not all the fruit and veg is local, slow, or organic, a sign proudly tells us what comes from where.  That means we can decide to buy new potatoes from Eygypt, or last year’s Desiree from Somerset.

So that’s £100 for a weekly shop, for four people. Or £25 each. I think it’d be tough to replicate that at my local supermarket.

As for coffee and tea? We use our local shops for those too: TwoDayCoffee for organic, fairtrade, locally-roasted beans, and ATTIC Tea for our teas.

You’ll feel better too.

And while I patronise the local supermarket for the stuff I can’t get anywhere else, our food habits have got immeasurably better. We have an American-style fridge Freezer, which used to be full of all manner of frozen food, and a fridge which used to be full of diet coke.

These days, the freezer has a few emergency things in it, like frozen peas, ice blocks, and the occasional piece of meat we’ve not consumed yet.  Our fridge is an alladin’s cave, full of fresh cooked meat, cheeses, vegetables, and fruit.  And when we get time, the milk is always from a local organic store who get local organic milk from a local organic dairy.

Give your local high-street independents a go.
Local Delis are a delight.

(it tastes better too)

Oh yes, I know what’s coming. I’m an over-privileged, self-aggrandising, middle-class snob who has the time (and money) to go on some sacred hunt for her food every week.

I disagree.

I’m someone who has made time to cook, someone who knows what it means to taste food which hasn’t been prepared by someone and then put in a jar. Someone who knows and loves to cook fresh meals, soups, pies, quiches and makes her own chips.

I’m a busy mom. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes I have to get take-out. But make your own home-made pizza once in a while (we did at the weekend) — and I think you’ll never want Dominos again.

In essence, if you give yourself permission to shop around, you may surprise yourself.

To boot, you’ll stop worrying if that’s Charlie the Champion in your burgers instead of Bertie the Bull.