As more evidence of contamination has emerged, it has become clear that the horsemeat scandal has major ramifications.

When about four weeks ago the news broke that horsemeat had been found in some beef products, there was obviously much interest. However, I think that most people expected the interest to be fairly short-lived, because investigations would take place, the cause of the introduction of horsemeat would be discovered, and suitable action taken, and that would be the end of the matter.

How wrong we were. The story continues to hit the headlines. More horsemeat has been discovered. It became clear that this was not a United Kingdom only story. Information about the complex trail of food production and supply throughout Europe has been emerging day by day.

The Food Standards Agency and the police have raided food companies. Warnings have been issued to schools and hospitals. Cottage pies on the menu in some schools were found to contain horsemeat, and were withdrawn.

The major supermarket chains, which sell a great many processed meat products, have inevitably suffered embarrassment, and have been making great efforts to reassure their customers. Typical of these efforts is a statement sent by Tesco to its customers: “Nothing is more important to Tesco than the trust our customers place in us. And that trust depends on the quality of the products we sell. Since we became aware that a small number of Tesco processed meat products have been contaminated with horsemeat, we have been working flat out to get to the bottom of the issue.”

Many issues have been raised by the “horsemeat affair”. The most important is the issue of basic honesty: if you buy a product, you should be able to be confident that it is what it says on the label. There is a related issue of health and safety. If something is added to the product, secretly and illegally, there are obvious concerns about the nature and quality of what has been added. This has been highlighted by the fact that horses are often treated with an anti-inflammatory drug known popularly as “bute”, and bute is banned from the human food chain because of a risk — admittedly limited — to health.

Another significant matter is social. In some communities — in France for example — quite a lot of people eat horse from choice. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, very few do, and most people find the idea alien to their taste.

A related, but much more significant, issue is religious belief and practice. Clearly, Hindus would not eat beef products in any circumstances, and that would not be altered by whether they were or were not mixed with horsemeat. The possibility of unrecognised contamination of any meat product by any other, however, could have serious consequences. For example, contamination by pork would face Muslims and Jews with a major difficulty.

As the weeks have passed, and more and more evidence of contamination has emerged, it has become clear that the horsemeat scandal has major ramifications, and major efforts will be necessary to sort things out.

It is, in short, a matter of great significance, which will not end in a hurry. One, admittedly rather flippant, side effect has been that it has provoked some comments and reactions that are not wholly serious. There have, for example been a large number of cartoons focused on the horsemeat affair. One showed two horses at a table in a restaurant asking “So, what’s safe to eat here?” Another showed someone ordering two burgers and adding “and don’t spare the horses”. The fact that the whole business came to light at the time when the body of King Richard III had been discovered under a car park in Leicester — a most exciting discovery for the historians — inevitably encouraged people to turn to Shakespeare and proclaim “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”.

The ability to see a funny side to serious matters has always been a British characteristic, and as a Brit, it is in my view a positive characteristic. It does not mean that one assesses serious matters as not being serious, but simply that one tries to put seriousness in perspective.

Making jokes, and trying to see the funny side, certainly does not mean that one is underestimating the serious side. The horsemeat scandal is undoubtedly a matter of major importance, and much work will be necessary to find out why it happened, deal with those responsible, and take effective steps to ensure that it will not happen again. The story meanwhile will certainly not go away.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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