Good old Billy Bragg was on the radio the other day promoting Tooth & Nail, his new album of love songs – a departure from his usual pared down, political and protest songs. When challenged by the presenter on his objection to a preponderance of public school alumni in the music charts (“That’s just the market, isn’t it?”), he said “Yeah, well you know what you get if you leave everything to the market, don’t you? You get horsemeat in your burgers.”
To us vegetarians one large, herbivorous animal’s flesh is pretty much as unpalatable as another, but the point, I suppose, is that if it says beef burger on the tin and what you’re actually getting is horse – you wonder what else could have been smuggled in there? It has raised the spectre in the British psyche of the labyrinthine Supply Chain; Supply Chains that link farms and abattoirs and agents and contractors and packers and exporters and retailers and processors – looping back and forth across Europe like so many steaming entrails, until traceability becomes all but impossible.
How tightly those dark and twisting entrails bind us to our European neigh(sorry)bours! Because as well as the content of your food, you may also be surprised to learn how it is being processed – and by whom. Oh, what tales are secreted along those British food industry Supply Chains! Tales of Lithuanians being trafficked into the UK and driven up and down the country for weeks, forced to chase free-range chickens all night (…not quite sure why) and sleeping in the van by day. Tales of Romanian children picking strawberries on Worcestershire farms – a grim parody of the jolly family outings to pick-your-own farms we enjoyed when we were children. Tales of teenage Chinese cockle pickers dragged to their deaths by the freezing tides of Morecombe Bay… (here’s Christy Moore’s tribute song for them).
But for me, the most curious tale of all is where all this cheap horsemeat has suddenly appeared from; another sobering reminder of how intimately globalisation has bound us all together. A few years ago, Romania banned horse drawn carts from its roads, creating an embarrasse des cheveaux. Well, if you were an impoverished Romanian horse cart owner, what would you do? Hark the quiet clacking of global economic dominoes falling… it begins with a Romanian government transport official’s signature and ends in the burger between your buns.
I’m sorry, is this post getting too depressing? To cheer you up again, here’s a joke I heard the other day: “There will be fewer Romanians than we feared flooding into Britain when they join the EU next year… we’ve eaten all their transport”.*
If Billy Bragg’s not busy penning a musical response to the horsemeat scandal he darn well should be.