Horse meat, Romania, vultures, Oscar Whisky, Owen Paterson and your taxes – all connected.

Horse meat By Richard W.M. Jones [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Horse meat By Richard W.M. Jones [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The connectedness of the world intrigues me.  I like making connections between facts, people, events, ideas.

I’m getting a bit tired of hearing about the ‘horse meat crisis’ (eg here, here, here, here, here) only because it certainly isn’t a crisis when safe delicious horse meat is incorporated alongside safe delicious cow meat in our food.  It is certainly a scandal because we’ve all been duped so that someone somewhere can make a bigger profit. As Ruth Davis from Greenpeace (who used to work with me at the RSPB) said on Any Questions, the fact is that the food chain is now so long – stretching across the European Union to Romania – that it is difficult to understand it, monitor it or regulate it.

Once before when there was a ‘crisis that never was’ – the Bird Flu crisis – it was Hungary that cropped up instead of Romania.  Do you remember we were all going to die from Bird Flu (which should really be known as Poultry Flu) and when there was an outbreak of Bird (Poultry) Flu in East Anglia everyone was keen to blame migrant birds until it was discovered that every week a lorry load of partly processed turkey meat arrived at the Bernard Matthews plant from Hungary (where there had been 800px-Turkeysrecent outbreaks of Poultry Flu).  And in 2001, the Foot and Mouth outbreak revealed to us all the scale of live animal transfers the length and breadth of the country (faster and further than the most adventurous badger can travel).  So when things go wrong with diseases, the food chain or food safety we discover that domestic animals and their processed bits are travelling widely with all that entails.

If the meat in your lasagne comes from (or passes through) Romania, and your turkey twizzlers come from (or spend some time in) Hungary, then this is partly because both countries are part of an extended European Union – and a part of the EU where wages are lower than here.  Our food prices are partly achieved because we are tapping into cheaper production systems elsewhere in the EU. And we might well say ‘Great!’ although we are also likely to want the standards, particularly the safety standards, to be just as good as they are (or we imagine they are) in the UK.  And that’s why we are all subject to EU regulations – it’s to set a level playing field for businesses in Bucharest and Birmingham.

By Xavier Häpe ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Xavier Häpe ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Let’s all remember that we want the Romanians and Hungarians, and Irish and British, to implement food safety regulations completely and properly, because our food comes from all those countries these days, the next time George Osborne moans about EU regulation.  And the same goes for the environmental legislation too.  We don’t want Romanian or Hungarian businesses to be able to trash the environment partly because we don’t want them to play by different rules from our own businesses, partly because wildlife (particularly birds, of course) move between EU countries and partly because we care about the Romanian environment even if slightly less that we care about our own.

While Owen Paterson has been keen to engage with Europol on horse meat he has been less keen to tell us all about the outcome of the CAP negotiations – which I still find completely bizarre.  As we, as taxpayers, are net contributors to the EU budget, not only do the CAP outcomes influence our own countryside but we are also paying for their consequences across the EU.  I’m paying (a tiny bit) for the impacts of CAP on the Romanian and Hungarian countryside too.

Although not a crisis (yet?) the horse meat scandal does raise the possibility that veterinary drugs may enter the human food chain.  Bute is the drug used on horses which is the main worry here.  Most people will not have heard of bute until the last few days but those, like me, with an interest in horse racing will have done as different countries have different rules about whether racehorses can compete if they have traces of bute in their systems.  If any horse who wins a race at the Cheltenham Festival in three weeks time is found with any bute in its bloodstream then it will be disqualified – so look out Sprinter Sacre, Hurricane Fly and Oscar Whisky.

By (Image: Goran Ekstrom) [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By (Image: Goran Ekstrom) [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
There is good news on another veterinary drug story. An alternative to bute is diclofenac.  Both bute and diclofenac are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (diclofenac is still used for humans (you may be taking it now) and bute used to be).  Diclofenac was widely used in the Indian sub-continent as a painkiller for cattle until it was discovered that it was killing vultures.  Because of the role of cattle in the Hindu religion most cattle carcasses were cleaned up by vultures and the Asian white-backed vulture was abundant.  Although diclofenac had been tested in the normal way, its impact on vultures is extreme.  Potentially, one meal from a diclofenac-treated carcasse will kill an adult vulture, and millions and millions of vultures disappeared from Asian skies because of diclofenac.

Thanks to research and advocacy by a range of organisations the veterinary use of diclofenac has been much reduced in India, Nepal and Pakistan and the outcome of that is that vulture populations are making a slow recovery.  It’s a long and fascinating story (see here) but it is beginning to look as though it might have a happy ending.

So you wonder whether the fact that neo-nicotinoids have been tested is really as reassuring as we are sometimes told (see here and here)? I’m not sure, but again if we had an EU-wide response it would help.

The world is an interconnected place – and that is part of its fascination.






22 Replies to “Horse meat, Romania, vultures, Oscar Whisky, Owen Paterson and your taxes – all connected.”

  1. interesting as always Mark – and a nostalgic return to the 70s and James Burke’s “Connections”.

    The question I keep asking myself is this: if agricultural production methods have driven down production costs to the absolute minimum, which we know they have (apart from the external costs to the environment and society that is), then how can horse meat be possibly cheaper than beef, lamb or pork? Horse is after all not an agriculturally produced meat, it is in the main a byproduct of people keeping horses and ponies for pets, and this by definition means they are not being kept at economically optimal costs. Far from it with horses, which are very expensive to keep. And this is I think where the story lies – since the recession/depression hit the UK, Ireland and continental Europe, people who used to be able to afford to keep horses were no longer able to do so.

    How many stories have we seen recently about “fly grazing” of horses and ponies on land in public or private ownership, and how many stories of stray horses causing road accidents. These are not coincidental – horses and ponies in their thousands, possibly millions, across Europe are now surplus to people’s requirements and are ending up in the meat trade – the “kill buyers” are routinely buying horses for the abattoir/meat trade. So I think this surplus of horses has driven down the cost of horsemeat and made it an attractive proposition for unscrupulous members of the ever lengthening meat supply chain. It’s easy to blame the Romanians or Hungarians (a traditional British ploy) but the actual problem may lie far closer to home than we nation of animal lovers may choose to believe.

  2. A lovely blog today Mark and a lot of points that I have been talking about with friends etc. Just prior to the time when I worked for the RSPB, I was a technician in the Environmental Health department at University of Salford. One of the tasks was to provide meat samples for practical classes from the now closed, Manchester abattoirs. It may surprise an awful lot of people to know that horse meat was part of the scheme too simply because carcases are butchered widely in the UK. The main reason that horse meat does not feature mor often in British cuisine is partly because horses are valuable work animals for much of their lives (like most animals, the meat is tougher in older individuals) and because horse meat has a very strong smell that we would nbever tolerate in this day and age.

    I also like the idea of inter-connectability – abattoirs processing meat…from pigs…bacon…Kevin Bacon…six degrees of separation.

  3. I do like it when we’ve heard in this debate on the media about bute a few key points conveniently get missed out (it wouldn’t be fit for ITN to tell the whole story when ITV get a lot of advertising from the supermarkets, but even the BBC have been slow). I’ve been led to believe bute was used in humans until the our American cousins (FDA) withdrew it’s liscense why? ULCERS/INTESTINAL PROBLEMS/APLASTIC ANEMIA/INCREASE RISK OF HEART DISEASE and HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, no threat to human health hey!? So much so their is guidlines in the USA for horsemeat any horse being treated with bute has to have been of “bute” for no less then 28 days and has to be independently tested for the drug before being sent off to the meat house, so for now I’ll follow our our American cousins lead.
    Also I think the food chain on this story has some what been exagerated a lot of the chain involved 2 meat brookers (Holland and Crete) I might be wrong but I’m guessing for these two part of the chain it was a person sat in front of computer monitor and telephone and the meat wasn’t actually moved to these countries…think that long in transit and it would go “off” at some point

    1. Douglas, I am not sure the food chain part of the story has been exaggerated so much as being raised to disguise some uncomfortable truths. As I said in my original post, horse meat is routinely butchered in the UK and that has been the case for many years. Indeed, horse meat is used in some European cuntries as a direct food rather than a cheap filler for processed meat. Judging from the news media tilt on the story, there is very little appreciation of these standard facts and even the government may have gone in the wrong direction by pursuing plants that handle horse meat in the UK (we have to reserve judgement on whether processing has taken place in those same plants for the time being although of course, this would be a different matter if proved). Mostly, I think that culturally we have collectively forgottten or ignored that the horse is still a food animal.

      On the subject of Bute, I have my doubts that drugs would be –
      a, present in processed meat in sufficient quantities to be harmful and
      b, whether the drugs would survive the processing and cooking process so this side of the story is a worry rather than a crisis. However, there is the potential real concern that horses never intended to be in the human food chain may have slipped through, particularly as this would point up a major deficiency in control.

      Incidentally, food movement across the EU and beyond can be achieved in hours (there and back), just look at the air freight movements in places like Ostend. I am not one of the air travel bashers (I have discussed this in the past) but it shows how many air miles some of our food has done only to be wrapped in non-biodegradeable packaging.

      Note: I am not defending the scandal side of the story over illegal food labelling but I feel that is beyon the scope of this blog and comments.

  4. There is an EU approach to resolve the dangers presented by Neonicotinoid insecticides, but while Owen Paterson is looking to other EU states to help us resolve our horse meat problem, he is swimming in the opposite direction to most EU countries in relation to halting damage to pollinators.

    A recent report by the European Food Safety Authority has confirmed that these toxins are a high risk to honeybees and of unknown risk to wild pollinators. In response the EC has proposed a very significant partial ban that would remove much of the risk to wildlife. for more see –

    Unfortunately Owen Paterson and the UK seem set to lead an attempt to vote down the proposal at an EU meeting on 25th February. He only has to persuade one or two countries to coming across to the ‘no’ camp to get the 25% needed to block the measure.

    If you want to help stop insecticides destroying bees, hoverflies, moths and other pollinators please write to your MP this week – template here –

    Horse meat may be a scandal rather than a crisis, but the damage to pollination services is a crisis and if, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of risk, the UK votes against the ban then this will be a scandal.

    Matt Shardlow
    Buglife – CEO

  5. Any economists out there. I read that tobacco growing will be subsidized as they cannot compete (and make a profit) without a payment. Even thought the EU is against its use. So why not just map the existing tobacco area and give them the payment for setting the land aside/conservation work (for a few years at least).
    Mike only link i can find apologies.
    The argument gos Tobacco growing is labor intensive and a subsidy would help employ people but they could do some conservation work for the cash. Thus saving putting people in even poorer countries out of work.

    1. Andrew – welcome and thank you. Surely, with a world to feed we might not want to use land to grow tobacco any way. I feel slightly differently about grapes, I must admit…

  6. Dear Matt,

    This is a Sunday night comment so not backed up too many any impressive links but a few on the Neonicotinoid issue, (closely related to tobacco interestingly enough given Andrew comment).

    I am an arable farmer and use these in seed dressings, mainly oilseed rape, and I’m not going to state here that they are not harmful, they might be. If they are then a ban has my support so long as the repercussions are acknowledged and accommodated. From my standpoint we, farmers, seem to be caught in the middle of a very polarized set of arguments between environmentalists and chemical manufactures. We have seen a raft of fairly radical action taken on the precautionary principle by the EU as concerns both existing and new registrations of pesticides. Climate change leading to more extreme growing environments, a massive social and economic shift away from small scale agriculture and towards an economy based on cheap and increasingly imported food stuffs, and large shift of the total food value in terms of sector share into the hands of just a few powerful retailers is putting our food system into a very risky scenario. (really the subject of Mark’s blog today where the real message is how little power the producer now has in the food market)

    I know this seems like either scaremongering or an attempt to defend a chemical or chemicals which have the potential to harm but I would appreciate it if single issue campaigners like yourself looked at the picture in a more open way, it may be that a partial ban or limited use would be a better way forward in the circumstances. I agree modern farming methods are far from ideal but given that agricultural skills are now in the hands of less that 0.50% of the population this is unlikely to change in the near future. What is more likely is repeat of last year’s UK harvest which equaled the worst achieved in the 1970’s as there was no effective control available for one of our most damaging foliar diseases, Septoria. This was a direct result of the last round of reviews in the Thematic Strategy for Pesticides in 2009

    I would just say that I know you are going to respond to this with a bees are good for farming line, I agree totally but it doesn’t do any harm to listen to the producers view point as well on this. there is a wider picture.

    1. Julian – thank you very much for this comment. I have heard it said that despite their problems for insects it might well be that neonics are better than the alternatives that they have more-or-less replaced. Do you know anything about that? If true it isn’t exactly good news but it would be quite important.

      And just a minor point. It is too easy to describe nature conservationists as a ‘single issue’ group. In the past this always used to annoy me but now I can take it in my stride! My experience is that in talking to the NFU I could talk to them in far more detail (though not perfectly, of course) about their business than they ever could talk to me about mine. And as far as Matt is concerned he is standing up for far more than half the species on this planet so he has got quite a good comeback there anyway.

      Having got that off my chest (in what I hope was a perfectly friendly way) I say again, thank you for your comment.

  7. Mark, no problem and I did think twice before using the single issue tag I must confess as it can be interpreted as being a rather “off the peg” comment.

    As far as your question goes on the relative effects of neonics versus alternatives the simple answer is that we don’t really know. The obvious alternatives are cypermethrins and of course OP,s. I think it’s safe to say that the use of OP,s should be avoided as much as possible as they are extremely harmful although they have quite a short half life. The real issue is resistance of aphids and thrips to cypermethrins which are the fallback position if neonics are removed. Limited continued use of neonics would be preferable to massive increases in the rates of cypermethrin and deltamethrins which are the only viable alternatives. (They are very toxic to aquatics unlike neonics).

    As far as wide scale arable production goes and ignoring the specialised vegetable growing, which have their own equally important issues with a ban, the issues revolve around flea beetle control in oilseed rape seedlings and BYDV (aphid born vector in cereals ) both of which have major implications for yield and crop failures in many circumstances. Unfortunately while neonics are very effective they are also quite persistent and the argument as I understand it is that they can be found by pollinators latter in the crop development at flowering. It may be a very valid argument to restrict the maximum active allowed but I’m no expert on this. Maybe Matt has a view on this as I would imagine he would be more informed than me ?

    1. Julian – very interesting thanks. You sound pretty informed – and very sensible to me. I would be interested in others’ views too, of course. Thanks.

    2. Julian – very interesting thanks. You sound pretty informed – and very sensible to me. I would be interested in others’ views too, of course. Thanks.

  8. Defra’s view on the subject,

    it is woth pointing out something I had forgotten before I looked this up in that the worst case of Neonicotinoid damage was caused in France from one case where a seed drill (which used air to carry the seed from the hopper to the coulters) exhausted air contamiated with neonicotinoid seed dressing on maize out of the ground. The subsequent drift contaminated a nearby rape crop on full flower which killed the forageing bees on that crop. This was an issue with the drill used and the coating on the seed which allowed a soil applied rate to directly contaminate a flowering crop. The result would have been the same using a pyrethroid or OP in those circumstances but the fact that it was a seed dressing has led to this one instance being rather overused in the debate. All insectides kill insects, after all they are designed to, and used incorrectly the results are easy to predict.

  9. getting back to the original point, many years ago a chemical apllication contractor told me how councils were letting pavement spraying contracts for less than the lowest possible cost of the specified chemical. So how did the winners (best value !) make it pay – simple – they sprayed the whole contract with water. The council guys samples 10% of which maybe 1/3rd had weeds growing on it – so the contractor went back and sprayed them with chemical. QED. I’d be amazed if the supermarkets were under any illusion that the prices they were setting could ever cover costs – and turned a blind eye to how their suppliers made it pay. Julian is right about the stanglehold the food industry has over farmers – and as we’ve now seen, supplliers further up the chain so why do bodies like NFU and presumably many of their members go on supporting a model which is clearly broken ?

  10. We don’t but you try and take on the big retailers and see how far you get. It will be interesting to see how Christine Talon gets on as the new Supermarket ombudsman. I suspect she will find it quite a challenge

    1. “I suspect she will find it quite a challenge”

      An understatement to say the least, but if anybody can succesfully take on the big retailers it is Christine Tacon. She’s an impressive operator and no doubt quite a formidable opponent, I certainly wouldn’t want her on my case.
      A shrewd appointment by Jo Swinson, I think.

  11. Agree Joe, I’ve yet to meet her but she’s just also accepted a board role at Anglia Farmers so I will at some point.

  12. Why should anyone take on the big retailers,there profits per £100 of sales and return on capital are probably smaller than those who moan about them and the big retailers generally do a wonderful job for what I guess is 50 million customers,even if that figure is wrong the fact that they do a very good job for millions of customers is correct.In general public do not want to pay for parking and go hiking round a dozen shops and pay perhaps 20% more for weeks shopping than popping into one of the supermarkets for a hour once a week or even have it delivered really cheaply.

    1. Dennis – can’t argue with that for the most part. Although my favoured source of real meat is local producers rather than the big supermarkets.

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