Cheap Brazilian zebu steaks sold as 'prime beef' are just the tip of the iceberg. As Britons dine out in record numbers, restaurateurs are finding ever-more elaborate ways to rip us off. John Walsh explores a stomach-churning culinary scandal
Its original name was bos primigenius indicus, it's been around for 10,000 years and its 75 known breeds are found all over Africa and southern Asia. Among its many avatars are the Kangeyam bull, the red fulani, the Brahman and the Philippine native. Its name in the dictionary is the zebu. Colloquially they are known as "humped cattle". You might know them by a simpler name: lunch.
Thanks to the searching enquiries of Ms Nina Hobson, ex-detective and investigative reporter, it's been discovered that the humble zebu has been the prime constituent of steaks and burgers in many well-known pubs and restaurant chains. Ms Hobson, whose findings were unveiled last night on ITV1's Undercover Mum, found that four out of six JD Wetherspoon pubs were selling zebu steaks, as were three out of nine Hungry Horse restaurants, whose meat she took to a laboratory for DNA analysis.
Far from responding with shame and embarrassment, the establishments said that they'd had millions of satisfied customers and claimed that the pedigree of their cattle was unimpeachable. A spokesman for Hungry Horse claimed proudly that its beef was of: "the highest quality, from recognised and traceable herds across the world". JD Wetherspoon retaliated by saying: "Zebu is a breed of cattle taxonomically identical to any other breed of cattle such as Charolais, Limousin or Hereford." So what's the problem?
The problem is primarily one of quality: in that the zebu, according to the people at the English Beef and Lamb Executive, produces "meat with an overall poorer eating quality and more variability than that from British or European breeds". It's also a problem of trust. If a restaurant tells
you that the rib-eye steak before you is 100 per cent prime beef, you might feel cheated to discover it's a lump of Afro-Indian humped ox, more at home on the grasslands of Kerala than the meadows of Gloucestershire. There's a faint whiff of xenophobia about the revelation in Undercover Mum that the meat on your plate might be a just-legal alien, rather than descended of the roast beef of old England and Henry VIII's Sir Loin.
"Our view is that it doesn't matter where the meat comes from," said Guy Attenborough of the Meat and Livestock Commission, "provided the establishment makes it clear that it's British or Brazilian, so that the consumer has a choice. The fuss about the Zebu is to do with its toughness and eating quality – it's an animal designed to survive in arid conditions, and is much less tender than European breeds. The zebu genes tend to creep in in South American countries, where they're raising European breeds to sell to the European market, and their hardier native breeds get intermingled and interbred. So the buyers in this country get something slightly different from what they specified."
The zebu affair sets before us the classic dilemma of the middle-class gourmand: how do we know that we're eating what we think we're eating? As we become more sophisticated and demanding consumers, as we obsess about e-coli and genetically modified foods, growth hormones, pesticides and mad cow disease, food safety and hygiene threatens global warming as the numero uno environmental issue on people's minds. We need to be able to trust restaurants to buy only the best food, to handle and prepare it with maximal levels of hygiene and cook it without giving us salmonella. But we have, perhaps, become too middle-class to be able to tell exactly what food we're eating, and how it has arrived on our table. So the catering trade has become ever more persuasive.
Inveterate eaters-out are familiar with the reassuring form of words on every three-star or four-star restaurant's menu: "All our produce," they say, "is made on the premises or sourced from the finest suppliers in Hereford/ Kent/Aberdeen." Were you to press them about the provenance of their steak, they could probably give you the address of the farm from which it came, the name of the beast that supplied it, and the details of the slaughterman who killed it. But elsewhere, in the establishments we frequent every day, from the canteen to the burger bar, how can we tell? Can you really trust your sensory equipment to differentiate between guinea-fowl and chicken, between duck and ostrich, between the kind of fish Rick Stein would serve with herbs and butter, and the kind you'd feed only to your cat?
In my brief career as a restaurant critic, I've been served halibut so tasteless it could have been battery chicken, and veal à la Holstein so horrible it could have been chicken nuggets. I was offered eggs Benedict in Oxford and, when I asked if it was made with free-range eggs, was told, " Oh yeah... probably." I've been offered "diver-gathered" scallops and "line-caught bluefin tuna" wholly indistinguishable from the kind you get in Sainsbury's. I'm not saying the waiters or the menus were lying through their teeth, but it's clear that they often are. So much of the scrupulously "sourced" ingredients are nothing of the sort.
It's become almost routine to find that a side order of Dauphinois potatoes, far from being cooked on the premises, has been cut in a slab from a catering pack and reheated. A major restaurant chain squirmed with embarrassment a couple of years ago when its much-praised French fries turned out to be delivered in bulky frozen sacks from McCain.
The Food Standards Agency acts as an occasional watchdog over the catering trade, looking out for instances of "passing off" certain foodstuffs with misleading claims. Its finest hour came when it investigated restaurants and takeaways in 22 local authorities and discovered grim news: half the samples of chicken sold into the catering trade barely counted as chicken at all; they had a meat content between five and 26 per cent less that that which was indicated on the pack.
The FSA discovered chicken breasts from Brazil and Thailand that were only 54 per cent chicken; the remaining bulk was made of water, salts, sugar, flavourings and unspecified "hydrolysed protein". Two breasts were found to contain traces of pork. It was shocking. The incorrect labelling contravened European labelling law and the food processors (in Belgium and Holland) were duly upbraided. But, pace the Meat and Livestock Commission, there's no legal obligation to declare a food's country of origin – and when it comes to meat, food labelling often becomes a foggy area of nomenclature.
When the JD Wetherspoon pub chain insisted that zebu was "taxonomically speaking" the same as Charentais, Limousin and Hereford beef, it was guilty of extremely weaselly word use. Zebu does indeed slot in with these other cattle breeds under the classification of "bovines" or " cattle" (while we're at it, so does yak) but that does not mean its meat is anything like as good. Dealers in strict linguistics could argue that a rat is a "lagomorph" (a gnawing mammal with two pairs of upper incisors) and thus is the same, taxonomically speaking, as a hare. So should we allow restaurants to serve diners jugged rat?
Perhaps one shouldn't go there. Perhaps our lack of enthusiasm at learning that the juicy 10oz object in front of us used to be part of a zebu may stem from the physical presence of the beast. It's not a lovely sight with its strangely shawled neck, its pendulous dewlap, it lumpy flanks and droopy ears. But then we're such sophisticated eaters, it's a long time since we had contact with the beasts we regularly devour, from mallard to monkfish.
All we know is the steaming lump of pink, or grey or ochre stuff in front of us that we are shortly to introduce into our precious innards. Of course we need to trust the kitchen that has prepared it for us, and hope they won't betray us by making us ingest rubbish. It's only a matter of time before there's a legal obligation to declare the country of origin of all the food on every menu, right down to the root vegetables. It's the only way to conquer our growing suspicions that we're being constantly duped by the restaurant trade; the only way to experience what William Burroughs called " the naked lunch" – the one in to which the luncher finally " gets to see what's on the end of his fork".
How to spot something fishy: advice from the serving hatch
Bjorn Van der Horst is chef patron of Gordon Ramsay's La Noisette restaurant
Interview by Julia Stuart
It's difficult to tell if a restaurant is swizzing you. One thing to look for is the price. If they are selling wild line-caught fish, and it's cheap bass or turbot, you should be suspicious. Wild turbot costs between £20 and £25 a kilo and – knowing that there's about 60 per cent waste on that fish – if a portion doesn't cost between £25 to £30 then they're either selling it at a loss, or it's not wild turbot.
Customers should ask a lot more questions. They should ask the front of house about the provenance of X or Y piece of meat. Have staff been informed as to which farm the lamb is coming from, or where does this fish come from? If they don't know, that makes me wary: at the very least, it means there's no training.
There also needs to be more controls over what restaurants have in their fridges. I don't get enough inspections at La Noisette – and the same is true for every restaurant in London. If once a week there was an inspector in your kitchen then people would be more awake.
Generally speaking, I would also avoid all chains. Any chain is stretching itself trying to save a buck or two in order to grow. The larger something becomes then the more it needs to beat the bottom line, and so they'll cut corners. I like little local places where I know the owner, the same with my suppliers.
I'm sure that restaurants up and down the country have things on their menu that they don't serve. The big ones are organic meat when it's not, wild salmon which is farmed, house-made pasta which isn't, and wild Scottish lobster which is actually Canadian. There are not enough inspectors to make sure that it doesn't happen, so customers need to be vigilant, and ask lots of questions.
What are you really being served? Ten great restaurant swindles
By Rob Sharp and Julia Stuart
Sea bass or not?
Once cooked, the prime fillet of sea bass can be hard to identify – and there are many lookalike, imposter species being dressed up as the original. Among the counterfeit fish recently identified in Britain's kitchens by local authorities were the Patagonian toothfish – itself threatened by overfishing – which is often sold under the moniker of "sea bass", despite bearing little resemblance to the fish in the wild. Unfortunately for the publican in question, he was serving up the fish to a seafood expert, who promptly scooped up the offending dish for analysis in the lab. Experts claim there are huge variations of price between fish, and it is very hard for the untrained eye to tell them apart.
Supermarket bagged salads are full of additives, deteriorate rapidly, and have been vilified as an environmental disaster. But while it may be acceptable to crack open a bag in the comfort of your own home, there's no excuse for serving the stuff in a posh restaurant. Still, most pub chains use pre-prepared salad to garnish their burgers and fries. And diners in one celebrity chef's Chelsea restaurant this year were horrified to see bags from Waitrose being brought in to the open-plan kitchen. It was Sunday morning, and the venue had run out of its normal supply, apparently.
Instant egg, and other powders in a packet
According to Government food policy officer Les Bailey, the appearance of the words " made from natural ingredients" on menus should set alarm bells ringing. The officer, who oversees trading standards in British restaurants, has heard of countless examples of the less work-intensive powdered egg being passed off as scrambled. Less common is powdered potato – often conspicuous by its ever-present lumps – but still passed off by crafty caterers as genuine mash. Bailey says: "They are a stop gap, often taking the place of fresh ingredients. They get used in recipes, when it's not always clear on the menu."
Reformed ham, chicken or scampi
It's common for eateries to pass off scampi tails glued together with additives as "scampi" pieces. They can even be minced scampi that has been breaded. This is " reformed scampi", a turn-off for menu-writers. Another example of this " reformation" can be the use of ham taken from the bone, which is then combined with water to plump it up before it's presented as "dry-cure low water content" traditional ham. These ingredients are often sold by wholesalers, and the takeaways or restaurants that buy them can sometimes be unaware of their provenance.
When "organic" equals factory-farmed
Foodies love organic meat, and are willing to pay vastly inflated prices in the belief that it's healthier and tastes better. But not every restaurant plays by the rules. In December, a Notting Hill eaterie frequented by Kate Moss, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue was fined £7,500 for falsely claiming that meat it was using was organic. Johnny Ekperigin, the managing partner of Julie's Restaurant, received the fine at West London Magistrates' Court after being found guilty of three offences under the Food Safety Act 1990. During a routine inspection, workers from Kensington and Chelsea council saw that the menu included "organic" roast chicken, but on checking the kitchens, they found no trace of anything organic on delivery notes. Suppliers confirmed that they had not supplied organic meat to the restaurant for the 52 days before the inspection.
Drinks can account for half a typical restaurant bill, so it's little surprise that canny outlets use every trick in the book to increase their margins. Always check that the label on your wine bottle tallies with the menu – cheaper vintages are often substituted in the hope that a diner won't notice – and take special care when ordering soft drinks: chain pubs often sell cola and lemonade made from concentrates. In response to widespread counterfeiting, the Food Standards Agency last year developed a chemical test that can tell the difference between mineral and tap water.
The fishy business of "wild" salmon
It is little wonder, given how many times we are told that farmed salmon is full of toxic nasties, that people are prepared to pay a fortune for the wild variety. However, research by the Food Standards Agency reveals that up to 15 per cent of fish labelled as "wild" is actually farmed. Its survey found that 10 per cent of "wild" sea bass on menus was farmed, rising to 11 per cent of sea bream and 15 per cent of salmon. The reason is purely financial. Farmed fish is much cheaper than wild: in markets wild salmon can cost £30 per kg, while the farmed variety can cost from just £4.20 per kg.
When "home cooked" means microwaved
The term " home-cooked" that is scrawled across many a pub chalkboard is meaningless. Ideally, steak-and-kidney pies, pasties and apple pies should be prepared on-site with enough genuine effort to be called " home-cooked ". But this did not occur recently, Les Bailey claims, when some North Yorkshire pubs were chastised for buying in factory-produced products, baking them, and claiming that they were their own. Another offender is "home-made soup". If a restaurant buys factory-made stock in bulk and adds herbs and spices, trading standards deem it unacceptable to pass it off as one's own. A cluster of Durham eateries have been in trouble recently for doing just this.
Boil-in-the-bag main course
The "pub grub" industry needs to produce reliable food, fast. Many outlets therefore resort to serving "boil-in-the-bag" main courses, which chefs tend to call " sous vide" – a nebulous (if gourmet-licious) term that literally translates as "in a vacuum". According to Steve Dancer, purchasing director of the pub chain Greene King: "It's a great name for boil-in-the-bag because it's French and it sounds nicer." Some dishes are more prone to vacuum-packing than others: it is, for example, almost impossible to lay one's teeth on a freshly cooked lamb shank in UK pubs (including Mr Dancer's), because it can take up to five hours to cook. Boil-in-the-bag can be heated up in minutes.
"Line-caught" conjures up images of an artisan fisher with a rod. What it actually means is that an ugly great trawler has crossed the ocean with several hundred yards of nylon and hooks hanging out the back, indiscriminately killing all sea life as well as the occasional albatross. Even then, line-caught fish is more expensive than farmed or netted alternatives, since it is normally fresher and its flesh firmer. Most consumers cannot taste the difference, and an estimated 5 per cent is mislabelled by disreputable outlets or suppliers.