Martin Hannan: Get tucked into a food alliance

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The scandal of fraudster food companies using horse instead of beef in a range of products had largely passed me by, on account of the fact that I have eaten horse steaks in the past while visiting Italy and France.

A tasty little entrecête du cheval washed down with a fine Burgundy has much to recommend it, and I do not share the general British revulsion at the thought of eating the cousins of Shergar.

My stomach was turned, however, by the revelation that up to a third of curry houses in Scotland may have been using cheap cuts of beef instead of lamb. That is truly outrageous, especially for someone who regularly dines out on lamb biryani.

The very thought that I have been eating beef instead of mutton – let’s face it, no-one really believes they serve prime lamb – is enough to make you want to switch to Chinese restaurants and eat king prawn chop suey because no-one can fake that, I think.

Frankly, in some restaurants that I could name, you would not know the difference between lamb and chicken after one mouthful of vindaloo. After all, when your taste buds have been obliterated, you are never going to be able to taste anything.

The horsemeat and doctored curry scandal seems now to be out of control, and the public are left wondering if they can trust food manufacturers and restaurateurs at all.

I was particularly appalled to learn from one expert in the meat trade that it may not be just horse that has gone into some supposed beef products. According to my source, donkeys and mules may well have entered the human food chain, put there by unscrupulous traders in countries where they laugh at the very notion of 
European Union regulations.

“Have you not noticed that the scientists always refer to horse DNA and not actual meat?” he said, without a twinkle in his eye. Apparently it is the media using horsemeat as a form of shorthand which makes people think they have been getting thoroughbred fillet. The real story is that all sorts of horse bits – brains, intestines and other innards – may well have been masquerading as beef in those lovely little frozen lasagnes which I used to enjoy but which, on reflection, I will not be touching from now on.

If we are serious about banning horse from the food chain, there is something we could do in the UK. We could simply ban the killing of horses for food, and also stop the horrendous traffic in horses to the continent.

In truth, we would only be exporting the trade. Since the United States banned killing horses for human consumption in 2006, horse slaughter businesses in Canada have grown by 75 per cent, according to a recent report by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

If a similar ban was enacted here, horses would simply be taken abroad, for the market in Europe for horsemeat is large and lucrative.

What we need is not a ban, for it is a relatively small trade anyway, but more power to those who are charged with ensuring that our food is both safe and actually contains the stated ingredients. In researching how we do currently regulate food in Britain, I found a very good example of the sort of new relationship which may come about once Scotland votes Yes in next year’s referendum – as always when writing about politics I remind you I am a member of the SNP . . . other columnists please copy.

The regulation of food is a devolved function at present, but realising that food manufacture and preparation is very much an international market, the Scottish and UK governments between them came up with a solution which ensures that in all parts of Scotland and England, there is access to the necessary expertise.

Here’s the official explanation taken from the website which explains what the regulators do: “The Food Standards Agency Scotland operates within the UK Food Standards Agency. This ensures consistency of approach while allowing for specific Scottish circumstances to be fully taken into account in the implementation of food safety and standards policy in Scotland. There are two Scottish members of the main Food Standards Agency Board . . . the Agency is accountable for its actions to both the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments.”

In addition, a body called the Scottish Food Advisory Committee was set up to give advice to the Food Standards Agency on food safety and standards 
issues affecting Scotland.

According to all reports, food standards people north and south of the Border work together very well and while Government ministers may have been slow off the mark in dealing with the growing crisis, the experts did their job in Scotland and England, though I suspect the fall in the number of standards officials through public spending cuts may well have hampered their activities.

We live in a global village, and when unscrupulous fraudsters ply their trade internationally, it will take international cooperation to defeat them. Here is one area where experts in Scotland and England have worked together for the common good.

After independence, there will be undoubtedly many more such examples of a different, but still vibrant, relationship between this nation and its neighbours, though I suspect it will take some horse trading to bring them about.