Helen Martin: Meat delusion’s hard to swallow

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NO sooner had the horse burger scandal broken last week than the jokes began. Himself came up with my favourite. “I think we should have Tesco meatballs for tea. I hear they’re the dog’s b******s!”

Despite reassurances that there was no risk to health (unless the thought of eating a horse gives you projectile vomiting and you choke as a result) there is understandable outrage that amidst the plethora of testing and food production regulation, product traceability and labelling rules, we can’t even be assured about which species we are eating. The public’s emotional reaction to Dobbin and chips was harder to justify.

I love horses and used to do a lot of horse riding. So of course I wouldn’t choose to eat a pony any more than I would eat my cat, although I do eat meat.

But today’s consumers are so far from the land and the farm yard that their logic about what is and is not appropriate to eat is seriously flawed, based as it is on the supposition that cows, pigs and sheep are somehow destined for the dinner table while the number 3 in the 2.30 at Musselburgh is not.

One vox-popper on TV tried to explain that horses “have a relationship with humans unlike cows or sheep”.

Whoa there! He’s clearly among the majority of the population whose acquaintance with cows has never extended beyond the polystyrene pack or the butcher’s shop.

I spent almost every young summer on my grandparents’ farm in Ireland. The dairy cows lived in the field down by the Shannon and the beef herd occupied the field immediately at the back of the farmhouse. As long as someone opened the gate for the milking cows, they’d come up to the parlour at the same time every night and morning without even a whistle.

Being bullocks, the beef cattle had less human handling but exhibited great curiosity about everything that happened around the house. I’d while away sunny afternoons swatting cattle flies and reading on the adjoining wall so the bullocks became quite familiar and one in particular who I called Charlie, would come trotting over whenever I appeared. He was looking for a carrot or cabbage from the garden or a bit of apple from the orchard and was as tame as an 
unbroken horse.

Needless to say the next summer there was no sign of Charlie and when I asked where he’d gone my uncle replied with Irish farmer’s candour: “Ah sure, he must be in a poi be now”.

Granny wrung the necks of her own chickens, not because she was an old, tackety-booted Cruella de Vil but because they knew her, didn’t fret when she picked them up and so the deed was done before they knew it and with no distress.

We know pot-bellied pigs make affectionate pets. Porkers bred to eat are bigger and smellier but no more or less piggy. Tame sheep are also common, especially if they’ve been hand-reared. I recall a local who worked in a slaughterhouse saying the thing that upset him most was that when sheep realised what was happening, they cried real tears.

The reality of the meat industry is that if any animal was designed simply as food it would have no brain. Given the chance, they all have the ability to build relationships with humans and each other and the only thing that sets horses, dogs and cats apart is that we have chosen to give them extra privileges and – in this country at least – leave them off the menu.

Of course it’s concerning that horse meat turned up in burgers. Who knows how long it’s been happening and what further unexpected ingredients might be uncovered now the lid’s off the can of worms? (There’s a thought . . . have they tested for worm?).

But anyone who happily chomps through beef steak in the belief that it’s food but shies away in horror from “viande de cheval” which they see as a pet, is seriously deluded.

We can all make personal choices about which animals we do or don’t want to eat and we shouldn’t be deceived at the till. But we shouldn’t deceive ourselves either that a cow inherently deserves to be a burger any more than a horse does. That’s down to nothing more than human taste and 

Driving ambition

I FOR one am really heartened by the news that there have been 350 applications for the role of Edinburgh tram driver and only 12 vacancies. But I don’t think for one minute it is a sign of growing confidence in the entire project.

Tram driving, like train driving, is every little boy’s dream. If there were 12 toilet attendant jobs on the go I doubt there would have been the same response to the prospect of employment. But always look on the bright side.

If the whole thing turns out to be as much of a transport disaster as some of us fear and with a shortage of paying passengers, it seems there will be a market for turning it into a fun theme track and charging punters for a shot at driving the things.