Horse burgers should have us all weeping in the aisles | Tanya Gold

The supermarkets are not the victims in this scandal – with false smells and tastes they’ve made us lose touch with what we eat

In Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd it was initially cats in pies; later, because all drama needs momentum, it was extras in pies. Now, in widening swaths of our glittering supermarkets and cheaper restaurants, it is bits of pig and horse in beefburgers, sometimes in grotesque amounts.

Ignore the chatter about horsemeat being good for you; this is not an opportunity to amaze with pony recipes, but a vast fraud perpetrated, inevitably, against poorer consumers. Was anyone surprised that the adulteration occurred in “value” products? I am surprised that the outcry has not been louder – so far, most of the tears shed have been for the cute ponies, not for the cute children who obliviously swallowed the cute ponies, and then played with their plastic cousins.

What is worse – eating Peppa Pig or your Little Pony? That depends on whether you are a Jilly Cooper fan, a Muslim, or a Jew. Either way, I detect snobbery: if you are a stranger to farmers’ markets, what can you expect for your money, even as it was announced than a million children, or small consumers, will be in poverty under this administration? The story has already crawled into gag. A pantomime horse entered a Tesco in Pembrokeshire earlier this week and pretended to weep in the burger aisle until security removed it.

Food adulteration is as ancient as greed. Bee Wilson’s fascinating book Swindled: the Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee tells of 19th-century London grocers selling green vegetables made lustrous with copper, or adding red lead to Double Gloucester cheese. Rotten cheese was refaced, or cladded, with fresher cheese; rotten meat was seared out of the joint, which was then sold on. Bread flour could be cut with sand; pepper with dust from the floor. The Romans sweetened rancid wine with lead. In India sweets may be coloured with poisons; in China, soy sauce was said to be sometimes made from human hair. Tea leaves are recycled and resold; inferior Chinese truffles impersonate Périgold.

I do not accuse Tesco of secret foreknowledge of the yuksome pony burgers. But I do not buy their bewildered sense of victimhood, their quasi-Shakespearian “a fraud perpetrated on us all” rhetoric either. No one is keener to obscure what we are actually eating than the supermarkets, and no one pushes the most dangerous foods more forcefully into our mouths.

A part of the scandal is deregulation. This current adulteration was discovered not in the UK, but in Ireland. As Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, has pointed out in the Guardian, the government split responsibility for food inspections between the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2010: split a responsibility, and watch the chaos flap.

Creagh also noted the Food Standards Agency (FSA) meat hygiene service had its budget cut by £12m over four years. (The budget for trading standards generally will be reduced by about one third, to £140m, by 2014.) The number of trading standards inspections for all products has fallen by 29% in two years and the number of public analyst laboratories has nearly halved in a decade. This is all presumably bliss to industry in general and the food industry in particular who, as I never tire of pointing out, were lucky enough to write the Conservative party’s food policy in opposition.

The government’s response to those pointing out the weaknesses in trading standards was a masterclass in Bush era Americanisms. To criticise the UK food industry is unpatriotic, or, as the environment minister David Heath told Creagh: “It is very important neither you, nor anyone else, talks down the British food industry.” Ignorance, in his mind, is preferable; these days, you are either for burgers, or against them, which is not helpful.

But you cannot regulate for the wider food culture; in this we have a crisis, spurred by our hunger for cheap and varied food, and the terrifying power of monopoly. Of all the things that come too easily and cheaply, perhaps food is the most dangerous? If your beef burgers are less than £6 a kilo, and you do not farm or butcher it yourself (as endorsed by The Original Road Kill Cookbook), can you really be surprised if it is cut with nameless horrors?

Our collective relationship with food is approaching something like psychosis. The 24-hour supermarket, a modern palace of dreams, where everything is available and nothing ever rots, is a fairytale mirage, because it has taught us to forget how to eat. So of course obesity, the sad physical manifestation of forgetting how to eat, is swelling like one of Margaret Atwood’s creepy headless chickens in Oryx and Crake.

False smells and tastes confuse us; edible food that looks wrong is rejected, in a strange parallel with the beauty industry. It was revealed this month that globally we throw away between 30% and 50% of the food we buy from supermarkets, and 75% of the vegetables grown in Britain are never even eaten. If you do not know what it is supposed to taste like, how can you tell what you are eating? The answer came this week. You can’t.

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