Flogging Dead Horse

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

There have been disturbing news stories about horse meat being found in processed food products stocked by supermarket chains in Ireland and the UK. Tests indicated that Findus frozen beef lasagne contained up to 100%  horse meat.

Some have sought to treat the matter lightly, pointing out that horse meat can be the favoured delicacy of some European gourmets. Brits with conservative culinary habits may be condescending about the kind of comestibles Johnny Foreigner is happy to consume.

Peruvians have been eating  guinea pigs for millennia. I tried it twice myself while in Cuzco. The first time was in a rather swish restaurant called Ciccolina, whose waiters wore black suits and white gloves. I swear that I did not know what cuy was until after I had swallowed it. The restaurant is known for tiny portions and this was just a minute cube of meat, rather like liver, which went down in one swallow. The second occasion was at lunch in a more downmarket restaurant where the creature was served whole, splayed out on the plate allowing no room for doubt that it was a guinea pig. Although, I knew that it was rodent rather than porcine, it did taste like pork crackling. I am afraid the creature died in vain because I could not eat much of it. I did not like the way it was looking at me.

Incidentally, another speciality of the Ciccolina is alpaca steak.

I have eaten peccary in Nepal. The porcine creature accompanied us on our Himalayan  trek and became a friend. I named it Gregory Peccary. The porters slaughtered it and roasted it in a hole in the ground.

Our farmer neighbour’s daughter in Ireland had a pet lamb which she was very fond of. That did not stop her eating it.

I have eaten alligator tail in New Orleans. I tried  jellied eels, which are considered a treat in South London. It was not quite as disgusting as I had feared but I would not repeat the experience. My local Tesco in Lewisham  sold ostrich and kangaroo burgers. Koreans eat dogs. I have heard that in Sri Lanka the stray dog population reduces dramatically whenever Chinese road construction crews are in an area.  Chinese drink mice wine (that is not a typo for rice wine, I mean wine with a mouse in it).  West Africans eat monkeys. The French eat frog legs and snails. I have tried both – frog tasted like fishy chicken (as did alligator) the snail tasted like – well – SNAIL. I often purchased wood pigeon from Stockport market on a Saturday afternoon and had it for Saturday dinner. It was very bloody and had close-packed meat like liver.

The red squirrel is sadly rare in the British Isles because it has been ousted by the Canadian grey squirrel. Victorian naturalist, Frank Buckland imported grey squirrels to eat. Apparently, even today,  they can be purchased  for a couple of pounds and taste like nutty chicken. Buckland wanted to diversify the British diet and was a pioneer of zoophagy. He himself regularly ate  mice in batter, horse tongue, squirrel pie and stewed mole. Don’t try mole at home – Buckland said it tasted like poo.  I do not know how Buckland knew what poo tasted like, but there is a word for people who eat shit so some must do. The word is coprophagia. London Zoo used to  contact Buckland  when an animal died, in case he wanted to eat it. In 1859 he founded the Acclimatization Society. At the society’s inaugural dinner in 1862 the menu included roast kangaroo, boiled sea slug and grilled parrot. Such was Buckland’s renown that it was said when he walked past: “Elderly maidens called their cats indoors.”

Buckland was convinced that eating  rats would  help relieve the hunger of the poor, and  ease the infestations that plagued every city in the world. His father, the Very Rev. William Buckland, dean of Westminster, served  his dinner guests with dog, panther, crocodile and hedgehog, and  canapés of toasted field-mice. Buckland pére  claimed  to have eaten the desiccated heart of Louis XIV (“I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before”).

Frank did get discouraged: “in my humble opinion, hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country,” he wrote after a disastrous dinner in which every dish, from the soup to the jelly, had been prepared from the carcass of a cab horse.

A baby has been bitten by a fox in Bromley. When I lived in Lewisham I used to hear horrible screeching cries in the night. Apparently, this was the sound of foxes mating (or vixens being raped). Strolling up to Blackheath Village one would regularly see packs of foxes strolling about and turning over garbage bins. In broad daylight there were about ten of them sunning themselves on the lawn next door.

London Mayor Boris Johnson says the Bromley incident was “a wake-up call”. Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard comments that it certainly was for the baby. “In the arcane world of London pest control, there seems to be an ideological hierarchy that sets one species above another. A fox or a squirrel is an honoured guest, a wasp or a rat an exterminable menace.” (Incidentally,  a friend of mine ate bees’  abdomens when he was living in Japan. Apparently, they tasted like – bee’s abdomens.)

Jenkins recommends hunting urban foxes and feeding them to the poor: “Foxes are starting to eat children, and I really don’t care if they do it ‘only rarely’. Calling for strategic reviews is wimpish appeasement. Let’s get killing and eating.”

Many Europeans love horse meat. However,  the consumer has a right to know what he or she is eating. If the label says beef you have a right to beef. The problem with horse meat is that it may not have been raised for human consumption. Horses are treated with veterinary drugs which should not be allowed into the human food chain. Phenylbutazone is used as an anti-inflammatory for horses but is toxic to humans — it can cause a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia.

It is more than a little alarming that, according to  Professor Alan Reilly, Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI),  that Tesco withdrew Findus  products from Irish shelves but did not notify the FSAI .

The multi-millionaire beef supplier known as  ‘Dirty Larry’ is behind a company that supplied British supermarkets with contaminated food. In Ireland, Larry  Goodman name is synonymous with financial malpractice after he dragged the country’s beef industry through the dirt in the 1990s by breaking sanctions and doing business with  Saddam Hussein. A  judicial tribunal in Ireland exposed the corrupt relationship between Goodman and Ireland’s then prime minister,  Charles Haughey.

As I write, the story continues to develop. Some of my American friends have made disparaging comments about British food in general. However, this is an ecumenical scandal. It looks as though meat from Romanian donkeys, processed in France, packaged in Ireland has been  sold in German-owned supermarkets in Britain and Ireland. Hugh Carnegy in the Financial Times says that investigations have revealed a “tortuous supply chain spanning several countries”. A French company named in the scandal said that their meat had come from a “Cypriot trader, which had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands. The latter was a supplier from an abattoir and butcher located in Romania.”

Horse-drawn carts were a common form of transport for centuries in Romania, but hundreds of thousands of the animals are feared to have been sent to the abattoir after a change in road rules. A law, which was passed six years ago but only enforced recently, banned carts drawn by donkeys. It is alleged that criminal gangs prey on poor farmers by offering cash for both wild and work horses farmers cannot afford to keep. They pay 50 to 100 Romanian Lei – as little as £10 to £20. Abattoirs will pay up to 27 times that for a horse. A warm-blooded mare weighing 1,000lb can sell for around £270. A vet who has intimate knowledge of the business, revealed the abattoirs often turn a blind eye to the illegal trade.

Poland exports around 25,000 horses for slaughter each year. Russian gangs and criminals operating in  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are also suspected of involvement.

A finger of suspicion also points at Ireland, a nation famously horse-crazy and densely populated with equines. In 2007, the country produced 12,633 thoroughbred foals –  more than the combined total of France and the UK. Because of the downturn,  horses are being slaughtered in increasing  numbers – 2,000 in 2008, 25,000 last year. Irish authorities seized 2,364 abandoned horses in 2010, treble the number five years earlier.

It is possible that Romanian abattoirs have put CJD (Mad Cow Disease) into the food chain. One recalls the vile UK minister John Selwyn Gummer force feeding a burger to his infant daughter to prove British “beef” was “safe”.

Known pathogens cause an estimated 9.4 million food borne illnesses annually in the USA. The foods  most often implicated were beef (13%), dairy (12%), fish (12%), and poultry (11%).

Britain has been complaining about weak European food inspection while cutting the budget for EU food-safety checks.

My zoophagous days are far behind me and I now aspire to the condition of the vegan. When a peacock strayed into my garden recently, I arranged for it to be humanely escorted to a safe haven rather than my kitchen.