Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Do we have the stomach to finally change how we eat?

Mouthful: horse meat stirs images of Black Beauty but aside from that crisis many are unaware of what they’re actually eating
Mouthful: horse meat stirs images of Black Beauty but aside from that crisis many are unaware of what they’re actually eating

There's nothing more tempting than the smell of a home-made lasagne cooking in the oven. Finally, it's ready, you sit down and take a great, big bite of pasta, cheese sauce and meaty, delicious... horse?

I would. And come back for seconds. You see, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with eating horse, as long as it's top-quality, humanely reared meat, not some stringy old nag that's been pumped up with painkillers and flung into the food-chain to make a quick buck for criminals.

The yuck factor comes from cultural taboos about munching bits of Black Beauty: it seems too much like throwing your pet cat into the mincer, or slaughtering the dog for sausages.

In the big, noisy panic over whether horse meat has ever passed our lips, we've got our priorities wrong. We shouldn't be asking ourselves whether we've ever eaten horse – even the mangy, drug-tainted kind: it's very likely we have, possibly for years and years, and none of us has keeled over yet.

No, the real question is why we have allowed ourselves to become brainwashed, by decades of manipulative marketing from avaricious, exploitative supermarkets, into eating mass-produced guff and calling it customer choice.

How did we get to the stage where we think that a composite of fatty gloop (power-hosed off an animal carcass), filler and a big pinch of chemical additives is food?

This is not meat. This is not food. It's a sick, perverse joke dressed up as something cheap to serve the kids for tea. You'd be better off sending them hungry.

And let's not get into the usual caterwauling about class issues and impoverishment here. There's no doubt that poorer people are faced with extremely tough choices when it comes to feeding their families, but no one is being forced to buy this cheap, adulterated sub-food. I know one elderly, working-class woman who lives very close to the breadline, but she buys a whole, locally raised, free-range organic chicken when she can, because she knows how to use every bit of it. And, if she does, it works out better value than buying packaged, lower-quality supermarket meat, shipped in from God knows where.

Besides, the cash-rich, time-poor middle classes are just as bad, if not worse, when it comes to eating rubbish.

They may not be the ones buying bastardised chicken nuggets, but they're happy to spend big bucks on fancy-sounding ready meals from upscale supermarkets that are packed to the gills with fat, salt and sugar.

These people are almost as alienated from the food they consume as the ones munching cheapo horse-burgers. It's just that their dinner came "napped in a cheese topping from our specialist dairy in Parma".

But it will send them lurching faster towards obesity and heart-attack all the same, as they sink on to the sofa to watch another episode of Masterchef. Food has become a fetishised spectacle, a high-octane performance, not a pleasurable, nutritious necessity.

Speaking of dropping dead, it's recently been reported that horse-burgers have been discovered and withdrawn from local hospitals.

A couple of years ago, as research for an article about cardiology in Northern Ireland, I was allowed to witness a team of surgeons save the life of a woman having a heart-attack.

I watched as the colour returned to her grey cheeks and she opened her eyes. It seemed like a miracle.

Afterwards, I went to the hospital canteen with a different patient, who was recovering from earlier heart surgery, and was on a low-fat diet. There was literally nothing he could eat there: the grease-sodden menu read like something you would see in a chip van after a football match.

There's a certain screwed-up irony in reviving people in one part of the building and clogging up their arteries again in another.

The sad truth is that we have lost the intrinsic value of food. We have forgotten what real, naturally grown produce tastes like.

Certainly, the percentage of income that we spend on what we eat has dropped like a stone. So, even if we're not chowing down macerated cow-sphincter in the form of own-brand bolognese sauce, we're eating mass-produced chicken forced into growth so fast that its legs can't bear its weight, or medically anaemic pork from pigs raised on plastic mats who never see the light of day. No wonder we're getting fat and confused and sick.

Forget about the horse meat. The horse meat is the least of our problems. The real challenge is in learning to feed ourselves again.

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