Friday, 8 February 2013

Who Put the Urgh in Burger?

I've been trying to get my head round this horse-meat brouhaha.

Overseas readers may not know this, but in recent weeks it has emerged that leading supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK have inadvertently been stocking beef products such as burgers and lasagne which are, in fact, anything up to 100% horse-meat.  The cynic in me wants to put that "inadvertently" in quotes, but their shock and surprise does seem genuine enough.  French readers, of course, are shrugging their shoulders and wondering what all the fuss is about.

Now, last weekend, I could cheerfully have brained (with a family-size frozen lasagne) any number of Tesco customers, all wandering around the store asking -- in the sort of loud, self-satisfied voice that only morons are blessed with -- where the "Shergar burgers" might be located.*  Chuckle!  As so often, I was bemused by the unloveliness of much of the indigenous population of Shirley and Millbrook, Southampton.  It's quite striking. I mean, I'm no oil painting, as they say, but Saturday morning in the Tebourba Way Tesco can be quite the freak show.  There's a photo-project there for someone, but not me, thanks very much.

But back to the meat.  What was particularly weird was the way the horse-meat was discovered.  It seems the likes of Burger King are suspicious enough of their suppliers that they routinely DNA-test their burgers.  Blimey!  It seems equine DNA had started turning up, mainly in the "meat filler product" (some sort of protein-bone-and-fat slurry prepared from offcuts and used to fill the gaps between bits of actual meat) supplied from Poland.

Well, I don't know about you, but the concept of "meat filler" is quite revolting enough, never mind what species is/are being ground up to provide it.  Given the proven edibility of actual horse-meat, you'd have thought the use of such a substance in food intended for human consumption would be the bigger scandal, but no.

There's clearly a major taboo at work here.  Of course, the attitude to animals in general on these islands is a source of amusement and perplexity to the wider world.  Donkey sanctuaries and Pet Rescue Centres really do exist here.  No, really! Why, it's as if the British thought animals had souls, and were not just meat-machines which we, as God's Top Species, are free to use and abuse as we see fit.  I doubt there's another country in the world where the question "Do goldfish have feelings?" would figure on a university philosophy exam paper.

But the horse taboo is a deep and genuine one.  I suspect there must be pagan, atavistic religious feelings at work.  There is, after all, nowhere else in the world where images like the ones below have been created, and preserved, for hundreds -- and, in the case of Uffington, thousands -- of years.

Eric Ravilious, Westbury White Horse, 1939

Eric Ravilious, Uffington White Horse, 1939

I had never before considered there might be ambiguity in the expression, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!"  I think I'd always assumed it was a quantitative thing: I'm so hungry, I could eat something as big as a horse!  After all, horses are often invoked whenever coarseness, large size or inedibility are concerned:  horse-chestnut, horse-laugh, horse-mushroom, horse-radish, etc.  But maybe it's really qualitative:  I'm so hungry, I could break thousands of years of taboo, and eat ... a horse!  After all, there's quite a taboo around eating lots of things, but when hunger bites, it's been demonstrated repeatedly that we'll tuck in to pretty much anything, including each other.

Though I'd have to be pretty damned hungry indeed ever to eat a meat-filler burger from a fast-food chain.

[N.B. for anyone who has ever doubted the wisdom of "burning in the corners and edges" of a photograph, check out what Ravilious has done in those two watercolours.  See how it helps to stabilize and focus the composition, though he may have overdone it a little on the Uffington picture.]

* Again, for overseas readers:  Shergar was a famous Irish racehorse who had a very short but blazing career in 1981, who was put out to stud and then kidnapped,  never to be seen again, in 1983.  He is the Lord Lucan of the horse world.  Lord Lucan, yet again for overseas readers...  Oh, look it up.


Martin said...

Forget the meat-filler, Mike. Imagine if you were ever faced with choosing, starvation or the cannibalisation of indigenous Shirley/Millbrook folk. I have heard Shirley High Street referred to as 'the mutant mile'.

Happy shopping!

Mike C. said...


OMG, what a thought. I'm no racist, but... White people can be pretty unappetizing, can't they?

"Mutant Mile"! When I first came here I was truly staggered by the butt-ugliness of the inhabitants of my new patch. It's very weird -- must be something to do with being a port, I suppose.

If you walk down Shirley High Street on a weekday, you can get that Fellini-esque sensation that someone, somewhere is having a laugh.


Zouk Delors said...

"the likes of Burger King are suspicious enough of their suppliers that they routinely DNA-test their burgers."

Isn't the point that this is not "the fact" - Burger King did these tests in an attempt to exonerate itself after the Irish (but not the - cash-strapped - UK) Food Standards Agency did do them, finding horse DNA in meat products from Silvercrest, a subsidiary of ABP Foods Group*. I think it is right to say that the particular sample in which the taint was first found was economy burgers bound for Tesco, although BK then immediately came under suspicion as they use the same suppliers.

A full report on the horse-trading behind this story has just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme**. Unfortunately it sheds no light at all on why the denizens of Shirley look like animals. Are you sure that's not something that happens to you AFTER you move there?



Graham Dew said...

Well, I wouldn't want to eat anyone from Pompey either. Radio4 were reporting last night that this seems to be linked to new traffic legislation in Romania banning horse-drawn traffic on many roads, causing an over supply of freshly knackered 1hp transport!

Lovely to see the Ravilious pictures. I have a book of his pictures which has many poorly reproduced images in monochrome, including the Uffington painting; your post was the first time I have seen it in colour.

As for shading the corners, yes this is an important way of guiding the viewer's eye and keeping it focussed on the picture. This is done very easily in Lightroom and I usually add just a touch of vignetting to each photo. Not enough to be obvious, but even a very subtle amount really helps a picture to look finished.

Mike C. said...


If they looked like animals they might be more appetizing. If I was that hungry, I'd head straight for Winchester.


You can see a lot of nicely reproduced Ravilious prints on the web (but now very overpriced -- who pays over £200 for an inkjet print?), mainly from Art Republic. Ebay is awash with them.

It's curious, the "corner burning" technique was standard in the b&w darkroom, but people seem to do it less since digital and colour became the norm.


Zouk Delors said...

What's so appetising in Winchester? Or just less likely to get caught eating someone "off the manor"?

Mike C. said...

Tastier-looking people, fed on a better diet, getting way more exercise, but with considerably less low cunning and fewer weapons. I try to keep my diet organic and free-range, even in extremis.


Graham Dew said...


Only the other day my wife said said we should have some friends over for dinner...

Zouk Delors said...

I think clown soup's ok, but some people think it tastes funny. Tish! Here all week, folks!

Mike C. said...


I promise to give you advance warning if the ravening citizens of Soton and Pompey ever head your way on a foraging mission for the Special Stuff...


I don't wish to know that!


Kent Wiley said...

The selectivity of meat eaters is always an amusing subject. It's fine to butcher and eat pigs, cows, sheep, and chicken, but god forbid we touch dogs, cats, and horses.

eeyorn said...

I'm not sure about the taboo aspect of eating horsemeat. From what I've read, horsemeat was acceptable fare in the UK pre WWI, and as noted it's still considered a delicacy in France and Italy. I suspect that the taboo in the UK has developed relatively recently as a result of the routine use of bute(phenylbutazone) as a painkiller/antipyretic in horses. It was originally used in human medicine until it was linked with increasing deaths from the blood disorder aplastic anaemia.

Romanian sourced horsemeat would be harmless as the country cannot afford expensive pharmaceuticals.

Its interesting to note that the UK's state-driven media is now attempting to play down the risk of horsemeat which contains bute.

So I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that Romania is being made the fall guy for some dodgy practises that have gone unnoticed here in the UK.

As a non meat eater for many years, I share the amusement in people getting upset at the the thought of horsemeat contaminating the crap that passes as nutritious food such as burgers and ready meals.