Poor pay a high price when it comes to cheap meat
The whole meat burger saga reveals something extremely serious – the existence of a two-tier regulatory system
The real scandal of the burger story is not that beef has been contaminated with horse flesh. It is that the food chain is contaminated with something much more toxic – poverty.
In November 1999, I wrote a story in The Irish Times about beef that wasn’t beef. In the working class Dublin suburb of Clondalkin, people were being sold tins of something marked as “beef in juice” with a picture of a healthy-looking cow on the label.
The brand-name was “Emerald” and the product was marked “Dept of Agriculture Ireland Inspected and Passed”. The owner of a company actually called Emerald Meats, Jonnie McCarthy, was alarmed about this because he knew the “beef” didn’t come from his firm.
So he bought three cans and asked the food analysis laboratory at Teagasc’s National Food Centre to analyse their contents. The lab’s then director, Michael O’Keeffe, told me at the time that the tests, “suggested to us that the main meat content was pork”. Very small amounts of beef and poultry might be present, but essentially the “beef in juice” was almost all pig.
I thought at the time that this was a pretty big story, especially since the Department of Agriculture admitted that it had indeed “inspected and passed” the meat – and certified that pork was beef. But, as it happened, almost nobody gave a damn.
Pat Rabbitte and Des O’Malley raised the issue with the then minister for agriculture, Joe Walsh (now looking after the “public interest” at Bank of Ireland).
Walsh confirmed that the meat had been processed by Irish Country Meats in Roscommon, part of the Glanbia group. He explained that the cans had been intended for the Russian market, which then collapsed. They were kept in storage until two years after their sell-by dates, when they were “sold on as pet food”.
He gave no explanation as to how the meat (which was not marked or sold as pet food) had ended up in the human food chain. And that was that. There was no major investigation, no prosecutions, little media interest and no political scandal.
To explain why, I have to leave the realms of established facts and enter those of gut feelings. My hunch was that the key issue was where the meat was being sold and who it was being sold to. It was being flogged off at four cans for £1 (€1.27) in the great reservations of low income people west of Dublin.
It was cheap rubbish, two years out of date, that no one with a decent wage would ever dream of eating. It was fill-up-your-belly stuff for poor kids. It wasn’t being exported and it wasn’t going to be on the dinner tables of anyone who might matter.
What was in those cans was what’s called MRM – mechanically recovered meat – the product of a process used to extract shreds of meat from the bones of slaughtered animals after the recognisable cuts have all been taken.
I wrote at the time that “MRM can lawfully be used, but it ought to be subject to especially tight controls . . . because the meat is not recognisable as coming from any particular part of an animal. Tight controls on its use are therefore essential.” And this, of course, is precisely the lesson that was not learned. Because nobody cared very much, the question of what kind of rubbish was going into the making of cheap meat for poor people was of little interest.