Tristram Hunt: Horse meat crisis has tainted our national symbol of vitality
LATE last week, Staffordshire County Council banned beef from school dinners and the horse meat scandal suddenly became more serious.
Once animal antibiotics have entered children's meals via horse lasagne, all those jokes about 'driving a coach and horses' through food safety seem less amusing.
Because what the contamination crisis has revealed is both major failings in the global meat industry – and our British belief in beef above horse.
So far, 10 million 'beef' burgers have been taken off shelves, with every major UK food retailer affected.
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This is not a case of a few isolated crooks infiltrating the food supply.
Rather it is a deep crisis, revealing a total, continent-wide collapse of the meat industry's regulatory regime.
In the UK both the Food Standards Agency and local trading standards officers have had their funding significantly cut.
Yet such is the economic might of the major supermarkets that they must surely shoulder some of the burden of testing.
Indeed, throughout this crisis, our major supermarkets have looked flat-footed.
It is all the more contemptible since they have richly enjoyed the profits from the ready-meal revolution.
Consumption patterns are changing, with the quantity of convenience meat products bought by the British public up by 480 per cent from 1974 through to 2011.
So, when the dust settles on this scandal, the entire food standards system will need to be reviewed. What is more, we will need a proper conversation about the international industrialisation of agriculture – beginning with the fact that the 'beef' for school dinners can come from out-sourced companies, via France, the Netherlands, and even Cyprus. After all, they could have just gone to Market Drayton.
But there are deeper cultural reasons why this scandal has proved so traumatic.
Because our relationship with the two meats in question, horse and beef, is central to our national identity. Beef is our dish – not for nothing do the French label us 'les rosbifs'. Horse however, most certainly is not.
Of course, there are many reasons why horses are considered unfit for consumption.
One is that they are often pets and we ascribe human qualities to them. In turn this leads to a deeper emotional connection with all horses.
Just as with dogs, there is also a sense of shared sacrifice. Anglo-Saxon warriors were often buried alongside their steeds and, in recent wars, horses revealed deep heroism alongside their riders in battle.
One only has to see the success of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse to know we think of horses in an altogether different light.
Yet this could also be said of most countries, including France. And it is here our revulsion for horsemeat and, by the same token, our glorification of beef might lie – as a way of distinguishing us from our steak à cheval-eating ancient foe.
From the late Middle Ages, the ability of the English to raise and consume beef was a source of national pride.
In Shakespeare's Henry V, French Knights anxiously discuss how much beef the English may have consumed on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
A little later, in the reign of James I, the Yeomen of the Guard became known as the Beefeaters, because of the large rations of beef allotted to them.
Indeed, the fact modest English Yeomen could regularly put beef on the table marvelled foreign visitors.
"It is common practice", the French traveller Henri Misson observed in 1698, "to have a huge piece of roast beef on Sundays, of which they stuff till they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold the other six days of the week".
But it was the 18th century and an unprecedented era of food nationalism that really secured beef's status.
As a response to the growing fashion for fancy French cuisine in aristocratic circles, writers and artists set about contrasting this elaborate cuisine with the hearty, unpretentious diet of the English.
Nowhere is this better captured than in satirist William Hogarth's 1748 painting, 'The Gate of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England'.
Arrested as a spy when sketching in Calais, Hogarth takes his revenge by depicting the ragged and emaciated French gawping as an enormous top-side is carried to English tourists at a nearby, English-owned hotel. In one sketch, beef came to represent both liberty and the economic might of the English.
So, no wonder the horsemeat scandal has sent us into such turmoil – for what more depressing symbol of this austerity era could there be than to find this symbol of our national vitality being routinely substituted with cheap, illegal horse meat?