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Horses for courses

Published:Saturday | February 16, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Contributor

The English idiom 'horses for courses' is no mere chestnut, although it might well be a chestnut mare. In fact, it might even be a horse of a different colour.

'Horses for courses', as it has traditionally been used, means that different horses behave differently on different types of surfaces or racetracks. Like people, some horses excel only when the going is good. Others love mud.

I remember one day at the racetrack when a heavy shower fell and a horse that was at odds of almost 100-1 suddenly became the 3-2 favourite. The aficionado next to me, a man who got up at four in the morning with his binoculars and galloped to the racetrack to watch the horses train, told me that the horse was a 'mudder' and I should put some money on her. I did. She lost. But she was a mudder right through to the end, or this is what in my anger I called her, adding a few choice words after the mudder.

But now 'horses for courses' has a completely different meaning for people in Europe, especially the fastidious English who have a beef with hamburgers that contain more horsemeat than beef. While hamburgers really don't contain any ham and are supposedly made exclusively from beef overwhelmed with additives - and in the case of McDonald's, adjectives - the addition of horsemeat as a filler does not fill the English with anything but horror, disgust and the urge to run to work early in the morning.

In fact, even those who prefer their hamburgers rare find the most minuscule addition of horsemeat not rare enough. They prefer the golden arches of McDonald's to the fallen arches of horses who, in their prime, made mincemeat of the opposition in high-stakes races but have now ended up as mincemeat instead of prime steaks. I suppose there are grounds there for legal action, if not heartburn.

Richard III, whose body was recently discovered in a car park in Leicester, may have said, "My kingdom for a horse," but clearly meant to ride it rather than eat it. But eating it is what the English have unwittingly been doing for some time now. Hamburger makers have been beefing up their products with horse and, some say, donkey.

In a story headlined 'Horsemeat in food stirs a furor in the British Isles', The New York Times (February 8, 2013) revealed, "Few things divide British eating habits from those of Continental Europe as clearly as a distaste for consuming horsemeat, so news that many Britons have unknowingly done so has prompted alarm among shoppers and plunged the country's food industry into crisis. A trickle of discoveries of horsemeat in hamburgers, starting in Ireland last month, has turned into a steady stream of revelations, including, on Friday, that lasagna labelled beef from one international distributor of frozen food, Findus, contained, in some cases, 100 per cent horsemeat."

Cheaper than beef

The New York Times added, "The labelling of horsemeat as beef has breached one of the great culinary taboos of Britain and Ireland, two countries that pride themselves on their love of certain animals, particularly horses. The fact that the source of the meat appears to have been mainland Europe, where the consumption of horsemeat is far more common, has raised suspicions of fraud because beef is more expensive than meat from horses."

The English language is replete with examples of the extent to which horses are part of the language and, ultimately, culture of Britain. This is why the situation is seen as more than mere horseplay or horsing around. It is viewed so seriously that France and Britain have vowed to punish those found responsible for selling horsemeat purporting to be beef. Nobody in Britain says anymore, "I am so hungry I can eat a horse."

A Reuters report quotes Britain's Farm Minister Owen Paterson as saying, "This is a conspiracy against the public. I've got an increasing feeling that it is actually a case of an international criminal conspiracy." Prime Minister David Cameron has called it "very shocking".

Some of the horsemeat has been traced to Romania. Reuters reported, "With DNA tests needed to tell the two kinds of flesh apart, retailers and makers of processed meals complain of being duped by suppliers; one French firm has pointed a finger at Romania."

Ireland, long known as a horse-loving country, more for racing and riding than for eating, is also aghast. The New York Times disclosed, "Earlier, Irish food inspectors revealed that some horsemeat had been found in burgers stocked by a number of British supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl. The meat was supplied by two plants in Ireland. After an estimated 10 million hamburgers were removed from supermarket shelves in Ireland and Britain, Poland was identified as the source of that horsemeat."

While supermarkets are busy pulling hamburgers from their freezers, the situation is not yet stable. Some of the suppliers who have been very slow to respond are now playing 'ketchup' and that does not cut the mustard with the horse-loving British.

There is, first of all, the fear that the burgers could have been made from diseased animals or horses doped out with phenylbutazone, which is used as a painkiller but was withdrawn from human use when it was found that in some people it could trigger a potentially fatal condition called aplastic anaemia. Then there is the lack of sleep caused by worry about having eaten potentially dangerous horsemeat. Some people find it impossible to hit the hay.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the British were making too much of a meal of this horsemeat business but agreed that donkey meat may make you ass-matic or even make you suffer from ass-fixation.