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.