By Matthew Gwyther Thursday, 07 February 2013

EDITOR'S BLOG: Where's there's meat, there's aggro

The current horse meat scandal is the latest in a long line of fleshly abominations, says MT editor Matthew Gwyther.

Meat is murder, as that old Mancunian misery guts Morrissey used to tell us.  Hard to disagree with him at the moment, though.  With monotonous regularity, once every couple of years the meat game turns especially gory as a food safety scandal highlights the unappetising truths behind this multi- billion pound globalised industry.

This time some bunch of chancers – possibly from Poland, maybe from Holland - an eye to cost-effective use of some elderly horses and still-born ponies   tossed them into the rendering machine and they’ve wound up as filler in some "value" burgers in a number of our supermarkets. They’ve even made it into a Findus Lasagne, heaven forbid.  The accusations and counter-punches being traded by suppliers and supermarkets are unedifying and do little to restore consumer confidence. 

I’m surprised anyone is surprised. If you pay about 15p for a deep frozen beef patty what do you think has gone into it? Prime Aberdeen Angus filet, hand-reared by a kindly farmer called Hamish McTavish, tucked up in its straw every night until the fateful day when Hamish had to look it in the eye and apologise before driving it off to the abattoir in his Morris Traveller for a meeting with a high-powered bolt? Or, if it’s really lucky, a blessed halal knife?

The meat industry will get away with whatever it thinks it can. How can one forget the cause of the whole BSE episode which was caused by turning grass-eating cows into cannibals who were then fed their mad deceased relations  for supper. 'Hey! Look, mum! Cousin Horace has just boiled his brains and dropped dead in the next door field. Can we go over and have him for tea?'    

I’m no vegetarian but have few illusions about how the meat game works. I  don’t require the pained pleadings of the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Wotsit to tell me about chickens with sore knees. This was brought home to me years back when I was sent to write an article about the trials and tribulations of the Smithfield meat market in London.   

The City of London authorities who owned the place were having one of their periodical punch-ups with the market porters who worked there – the pitchers, pushers-back and the bummarees, all good members of the Transport and General Workers Union. The industrial relations at Smithfield made the miner’s strike or pre-Wapping Fleet Street look like a whist round at the Godalming Women’s Institute.

The place was pretty disgusting with porters smoking over carcasses and I saw sides of pigs being dropped off trolleys into the gutter only to be tossed straight back on.  It had a seething air of violence about it that had endured for hundreds of years.

Way back in 1381 the goings on in nearby Stinking lane, Flesh Shambles and Bladder Street had all got too much for one group of monks who were overwhelmed by 'foul corruption, abominable sights and the stench of putrification' when a public sewer became blocked and was diverted into their moat following a heavy slaughtering session in the neighbourhood. 

I went to a union meeting at Shoreditch Town Hall to see what the brothers had to say for themselves and came the nearest I’ve ever got in my career to being beaten up when a drunken bummaree mistook me for a bloke from The Evening Standard who had dared question their cause.

The whole experience left me on a diet of nut cutlets and cheese omelettes for a year until the lure of bacon got the better of me (fallen veggies always blame the bacon). One day, I daresay, it will be wall-to-wall porridge and salads at McDonalds and Burger King and the meat will have been grown in a Petri dish  but, for the time being, where there’s meat there’s money but always plenty of aggro, too.

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