Stephen Jardine: ‘If it seems too cheap, then it is’

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ANOTHER year, another food scare. This latest one, which has dominated the headlines this week, involved horse meat found in burgers sold by Tesco, Iceland, Lidl, Aldi and Dunnes Stores.

In one of the Tesco samples analysed, nearly a third of the meat was horse flesh.

So why did it take enquiries by Irish food standards investigators to uncover this? Why wasn’t it picked up by the retailers’ own quality control testing?

There is no suggestion the supermarkets knew about this and to prove the point, it would be no surprise if their suppliers were now thrown to the wolves.

If the suppliers are lucky, they will simply be inundated with new regulations and requirements, but in reality some will be lucky to stay in business.

We don’t have a culture of eating horse meat in this country and we shouldn’t be fed it without our knowledge. But it’s not hard to understand how it happened.

Iceland supermarket is currently advertising eight beefburgers for £1. That’s 12.5p each. How can burgers be so cheap while still allowing the producer and the retailer to make a profit?

We don’t have enough meat production to satisfy a burgeoning world population and yet we are competing to see who can sell it cheapest. The current situation is madness and if anything good comes out of the horse burger scandal, it will be a growing realisation that things need to change.

Since the end of rationing after the Second World War, Britain has been obsessed with cheap food. Despite recent rises, we still pay proportionally less for what we eat than at any time for generations.

Unless in the future we’re prepared to have it mixed up with horse meat or injected with water to bulk it out, we simply can’t expect meat or chicken to be as cheap as it is now.

Hugh Grierson Organics supplies quality meat but not to the supermarkets. Owner Sascha Grierson agrees shopping habits need to change.

“Let’s eat less meat and make it better quality,” she says. “It makes a huge difference to independent businesses like us if small numbers of shoppers change their buying habits in small ways.

“Meat could be three to four times a week not twice a day. We don’t need all that protein.”

Unlike other food scares, this one isn’t down to poor hygiene or bad produce, but yet again, faith in the food supply system has been shaken. If you can’t trust value burgers, what about cheap sausages or cut-price pies?

The answer to all this is shop wisely. If it seems too cheap to be true, that’s because it is.