Horsemeat and class

The discovery that cheap burgers sold at Tesco contain horse DNA has been a major news story in Britain for the last couple of days – giving rise to a mix of revulsion and low humour.

It’s curious. Horsemeat has long been eaten in Europe without a second thought being given to it – the Boucherie Chevaline is a familiar sight in France.  Moreover, there can be few people who are unaware that cheap burgers are made from rendered carcasses and do not represent anything like prime quality.  There is something especially significant, it seems, about the ideas of finding traces of horse in a burger; something that does not apply to other substances, possibly less wholesome, that might be found in cheaply-produced food. The more significant discovery of pigmeat – something that could cause real issues for Muslims and Jews – has been given far less prominence.

It’s a reminder, perhaps, of the way in which horses are bound up with English narratives of class and power.  The horse – as conveyance, war machine or as outlet for sport – has long been a symbol of wealth and power; from the structures of medieval power, to the rituals around horse racing, the paintings of George Stubbs, the social rituals of hunt, gymkhana and point-to-point.  As George Bernard Shaw put into the mouth of Lady Utterword in that lampoon on English upper-class manners Heartbreak House: “Go anywhere in England where there are natural wholesome, contented and really nice English people; and what do you find?  That the stables are the real centre of the household.”

It’s one reason why the image of David Cameron and Rebecca Brooks sharing the use of Raisa the retired police horse caused so much amusement in the UK – it fit so precisely with the class perceptions around Cameron and his set.

The reaction to the horsemeat in Tesco burgers seems to me to echo that cultural presumption – the contrast between the horse as symbol of wealth and power and the sad reality of cheap processed meat – the diet of plebs, no doubt, in the eyes of the horse-riding classes. As with so much else in contemporary English life, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the collective response is conditioned by class.

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2 thoughts on “Horsemeat and class

  1. The main issue I suspect is that beef is supposed to be fully traceable under the regs introduced post-BSE. If the suppliers believed they were getting beef but actually got horse, clearly something is wrong with the tracing system, which might also mean that beef which shouldn’t be in the system is there too – but obviously can’t be detected by DNA testing. If they knew full well they were getting horse, well there are still issues of labelling as horse made up around 29% of meat content in one case I think.

    I’m not sure how much of an issue the pig meat is. I doubt any of the suppliers are certified as kosher or halal anyway. Though of course there may be those who are prepared to bend the rules to some extent, but would draw the line at knowingly eating pork products.

    David

  2. There is a class dimension to the reaction, but it isn’t as straightforward as middle/upper-class shock at the thought of gymkhana ponies in a bread bun, though this perspective has unsurprisingly dominated in the press.

    The knacker’s yard is less visible these days, as working horses became redundant years ago, but the idea of old nags rendered for dog meat remains part of popular memory. The point is that in the UK horse was always crap food, i.e. unfit for human consumption, which is why it is a potent symbol of adulteration.

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