By Charitha Ratwatte –
A British politician the other day was heard expressing the opinion that the scandal evolving Britain and Europe, of horse meat being labelled as beef and sold in super markets as an ingredient of pre-cooked food, was an ‘international conspiracy’.
In the recent past many politicians around the world have found such ‘international conspiracies’ a convenient whipping horse on which to blame the various acts and omissions of misgovernment by them, which have wrought economic and political havoc upon their people.
External influences are much easier to blame for the misfortunes of a country, than for a ruling politician to admit their own or their stooge acolytes mistakes or acts of omission and commission fuelled by corruption. Cartoons of local newspapers are full of ridicule being poured on politicians who recourse to this explanation for their countries misfortunes. Like ‘nationalism’ being the last resort of the scoundrel, an ‘international conspiracy’ has become the last resort of the incompetent, corrupt politician.
When all other possible explanations fail, there is no one else more convenient to make the allegation of a conspiracy against other than an external force, which has evil thoughts towards a nation’s people. We have seen it over and over again, from contaminated fuel oil, to pumping and dumping in the share market, to the impeachment of the Chief Justice, to the debacles at Geneva and many, many more.
It is particularly depressing that a politician from a developed nation such as Britain has to resort blaming international conspirators, criminal at that, for something involving an animal which has been so useful to human development, as no other, the humble horse. Doubly so when the issue is around consumable meat, for which these countries have a plethora of laws and regulations, starting from the breeding and raising of horses, to their use, to the abattoirs where they are slaughtered, to the marketing of the meat, to the consumer’s right to accurate labelling of food products.
The humble horse
Ever since around the year 2000 BC , when man first began to tame the horse, on the Steppes, a highway of grassland that ran nearly all the way-interrupted sometimes by mountains and lakes – from central Europe to Eastern Asia, from the banks of the river Danube in Europe to the forests of Manchuria in the East on the Pacific ocean. This vast grass plain ran almost from the Adriatic Sea to the Yellow Sea. The land along this wide corridor embraced poor soil as well as rich: and in southern Russia, where the soil was rich and the climate gentler, people began to tame the horse, which was hitherto only hunted for meat.
Not as tall as today’s typical pony, these small indigenous horses were a great asset for the evolution of the tribes that inhabited the Steppes. When trained they were loyal and intelligent allies. When they lost their rider, they could find their own way home. They supplied milk for infants and so enabled mothers to cease breastfeeding a baby at an early age. In turn the gap between a woman’s pregnancies became less and the population of the Steppes increased more rapidly.
The horse could provide meat especially in the winter, when food was scarce. Its dung when dry served as a fuel on those grassy steppes where trees were few and fire wood scarce. Thanks to the horse the sparsely settled grasslands eventually supported many more people than before.
Around 700 BC, warriors learnt how to ride horses into war. Riding long distances, they could outpace traditional foot soldiers in rapid mobility and take an enemy by surprise and retreat as quickly and disperse when necessary. Around 500 BC the stirrup was invented – in effect a metal footrest suspended by a leather strap slung across the horse’s body – enabled the warrior to stand up on a fast moving horse and use their full strength to thrust a spear into an opposing foot soldier.
Horses made up for the lack of people when the raiders from the Steppes set out to conquer lands occupied by a more numerous enemies. One trained war horse was estimated to be worth 10 opposing foot soldiers. Mounted on their horses the people of the Steppes burst like a thunderbolt upon states at either end of the geographical corridor on which they horned their war like skills.
They achieved several remarkable victories in battle. A westerly group, the Huns stormed west and made the dying Roman Empire quake with fear. It was the Huns who ransacked the then Buddhist kingdoms in today’s northern Pakistan.
Nearly 1,000 years later an easterly group, the Mongols, led by the redoubtable Genghis Khan – combining a brilliant military tactical genius with an unprecedented cruelty – conquered the largest territory ever controlled by one ruler at that time of the world’s history.
The Mongols’ original homeland lay north of the fabled Silk Route, that humongous highway of trade, commerce and culture, which wound its way from the emporiums of China the ‘Middle Kingdom’ to the consumers of Europe. It in all probability lay near Lake Bailkal on the borders of Eastern Siberia and what is now the Republic of Mongolia. In about the 10th century BC they moved from northern Manchuria to eastern Mongolia. They later gave their names to a dozen other nomadic peoples who joined and collaborated with them in their great conquests.
The Mongols were a pastoral people, following the spring grass emerging after winter. Moving with their horses and livestock – sheep, goats, and cattle. The Mongol men used their horses with an unprecedented tactical flair in battle, firing iron tipped arrows as they rode against the enemy. While they were away on raiding expeditions, their women managed the homestead and family; the women had a status of equality, which surprised their Chinese contemporaries.
In 1206 Genghis Khan (the Great Khan) achieved what no other Mongol leader had hitherto achieved. He united all the Mongol tribes and built up a formidable cavalry force of over 130,000 men and over double that number of horses. Surprise was Genghis Khan’s chief weapon. His horse mounted cavalry allowed him to move men long distances within a short time span.
The Mongols utilised ruthless but intelligent vandalism. They were so feared due to the utter cruelty imposed on those who dared to stand in their way – that surrender and payment of a massive bounty was considered a better option. The Mongols over ran even the Great Wall of China which was built to contain them and captured Beijing in 1215.
At the other end, the western end of Asia, the Mongols captured a series of Islamic states, including Baghdad. By the end of the 13th century the Mongol empire stretched from the Banks of the Danube in Europe to the fishing villages near today’s Hong Kong. Genghis Kahn is still a national hero in Mongolia. The latest international financial bond floated by Mongolia called the ‘Chinggis’ after the Great Khan was heavily oversubscribed.
It was the humble horse, which was the critical element in the Huns and Mongols moving out so aggressively from the Steppes of Central Asia. The horse once domesticated in this manner, was a great asset for agriculture, industry and transport to assist the forward march of human kind.
Horses, though not numerous in the Sri Lankan tradition, were in use by royalty, the upper levels of society, colonial rulers. The famed Thappassu and Bhalluka who it is said brought the venerated heir relict of the Buddha to be deposited at the Tiriyaya Vihara, were horse traders sourcing their animals from Afghanistan. The King of Kandy it is said followed the Dalada Perahera mounted on a white horse.
The VOC, the Dutch company, which ruled the Maritime Provinces of Sri Lanka, tried to introduce horse breeding in Puttalam and Mannar, probably for Arab breeds – the arid climatic conditions of those areas, being a suitable climate. They sent a Lt. Calpetyn to be in charge of the project. It is said that he, Lt. Calpetyn, lent his name to the fort which was built at today’s Kalpitiya.
Later the British sent Irishman Captain Nolan to Mannar for the same purpose; his blue-eyed descendants are even today, said to be found on Mannar Island. Kudremalai point and bay, on the South West coast, where legend has it that Prince Vijaya landed, would have been a transit point for the horse trade, in ancient times.
A Queen, Alli Aarasani, who ruled the area, is said to have traded pearls from Mannar for horses from Arabia. Alexander Johnstone (1775-1849), Ceylon’s first Chief Justice claimed that he had in his possession the history of Queen Alli, who ruled that area 800 years before him.
Kuderemalai is derived from the Tamil word for horse, and there was once a beautiful stone carving of a prancing horse, near the red sand beach at Kudremalai, which was estimated to be 30ft high. Deloraine Brohier in her edited version of her father, R.L. Brohier’ book ‘The Golden Plains’ (1982) writes: “It would appear that the horse was built to face the open sea… Its tail was almost 1 foot 3 inches in height, 10 inches across and ridged: the gap between the tail and the rear foot being approximately 2 feet 4 inches. What was left exposed for measurement of this one leg is about 2 feet 8 inches, broken at the calf height, 2 feet 3 inches across; the width of the hoof is 2 feet 11 inches. Half buried in the earth, a round bowl of plaster could have been the hoof of the right foot. This is all that is left for us to see, of what might have once been an immense animal. Imagination can picture the enormous sculptured monument- the horse raring up, its head thrown backward, the fore legs poised in a beautiful posture of motion, set against the clear blue sky, and so seen by approaching mariners.”
It would have been a stunning sight, small wonder that an ancient Roman map also marks Kudremalai (Horse) point, and gives it a name which is derived from the Latin name for Horse, Bay of Hippurus. In 6AD, a Roman freedman, whose ship had been adrift for 15 days in the Indian Ocean, sought refuge in the Bay of Hippurus. He probably was the first visitor to record the hospitality of the people of this Island, he was stranded here for six months as a guest of the King, until the monsoon winds changed from North East to South West and he took sail back West.
He took back with him four Sinhala Ambassadors to Rome to establish direct trade with the Roman Empire. The vast amounts of Roman coins unearthed by archaeologists at Anuradhapura and the Citadel of Sigiriya are connected to this trade. Leonard Woolf, colonial AGA Hambantota, writes in his memoirs, like his colleagues, of how he went on horseback on circuit in his district. The Sri Lanka Police still has a Mounted Division.
Use of horse power
The use of horse power was in effect the effective harnessing of another form of energy, other than human muscle power, on which man had hitherto relied. Horses dragged ploughs, carts, and barges, turned water and grinding wheels, were ridden, provided entertainment through recreational and competitive racing and games like polo.
Horse racing was popular in Sri Lanka, until the import of thoroughbreds was curtailed due to the imposition of a prohibitive duty. There is some racing during the season at Nuwara Eliya. But foreign races are immensely popular among local ‘punters’ at the ubiquitous bookies shops which are found at every junction , and the betting industry is also an important source of revenue for the State.
Until the discovery of steam and fossilised fuel power, man was dependent on animals, primarily on the horse, cattle, camels, mules and donkeys for providing energy. Today the once mighty horse has been replaced in all these sectors except for ceremonial military parades and tattoos, recreational riding, policing and thoroughbred racing.
The important of the horse can be judged by the line in a Shakespearean drama, King Richard III, on being unhorsed in the battle field, was heard to be calling out: “A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse.”
The last great battle horses were used was in the 1914 Great War. The introduction of the machine gun put paid to the power of the mounted lancer.
The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war, glorified in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Canons to the right of them, Canons to the left them, Rode the six hundred,’ has epitomised the glory of a cavalry charge by mounted lancers. But the modern relevance of such use of horsed troops was succinctly stated by the French General watching the charge, who commented: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not war.”
However in guerrilla warfare, the mounted horseman’s utility survived. The Apartheid government of South Africa fighting nationalist guerrillas of the ANC had a South West African Specialist Unit of mounted horsemen, who were expert trackers, a specialised follow up unit to track guerrillas who infiltrated into South Africa from neighbouring countries. The mobility of the mounted cavalry was combined with other troopers on motor cycles and backed up by Helicopter borne reinforcements.
‘International criminal conspiracy’
So how did this noble animal, albeit converted to meat, get involved in an ‘international criminal conspiracy’, described to by discredited politicians to explain away situations brought about by misconceived policies, regulatory failure, incompetence, corruption or plain common or garden stubborn thick headedness or idiocy? It is an unprecedented saga of policy failure, paralysis and muddling, downside of globalisation, criminal intent and regulatory failure.
The worldwide economic slowdown has led to a surge of once affluent families finding that horses they kept for recreational purposes are now an unaffordable luxury. The number of horses being given for slaughter has increased by leaps and bounds. Regulators have expressed fears that illicit horsemeat in entering the supply chain for meat for human consumption.
For example in Ireland – once an economic power house, the renowned Celtic Tiger – 10 times as many horses were slaughtered last year as in 2008. Last year in Ireland around 25,000 horses were sent for slaughter at registered abattoirs and slaughter houses. The number of abandoned horses seized by authorities also has trebled to 2,364, from the number five years ago. In the USA around 100,000 unwanted horses are reported every year, while in the UK, 9,000 horses were slaughtered for meat last year – almost double the number of three years ago.
The Irish Food Safety Authority began DNA testing beef products for horse contamination from November 2012. It discovered that allegedly beef burgers sold by the UK super market chain Tesco in fact contained 29% horse meat sparked off what has ended up as the politicians, favourite whipping boy, the international criminal conspiracy.
Spain, another country mired in recession has seen a huge increase in the number of horses sent to slaughter. The volume of horse meat produced in 2012 in Spain was 56% higher than the previous year. Another manifestation of the crisis is that the number of people who volunteer to look after retired race horse thoroughbreds is in fast decline.
A British charity – Racehorse Sanctuary – says they are getting horses from as far away as Spain and Italy. In eastern European countries too, there is a glut of horses. The mechanisation of farming has led to horses no longer being needed. It is reported that Romania, anticipating its entry into the European Union, to give a modern sophisticated look, has discouraged horse carts on their roads!
Indeed one of the allegations is that horse meat from one of Romania’s biggest meat companies CarmOlimp had been introduced into meat products of a French company. Their abattoir located on the snowy fields of Transylvania admits that it had shipped three truck loads of deboned horse meat to the Netherlands. Another Romanian meat supplier, Doly Com, admits it shipped horse meat, labelled as such to the Netherlands, Sweden and Bulgaria.
While these abattoirs source animals for their beef and pork business from their own farms, horses are procured from farmers when horses are surplus or at the end of their working life, they maintain that old horses do not mean low quality meat. The Director of the Dutch company that received the horse meat from Romania it is now reported had been convicted for selling horse meat to France labelled as beef, only last year. He had relabelled South American horse meat as beef.
The name of the company is Draaap – the Dutch word for horse (paard) spelt backwards! It is reported that this Director had been also put on trial for falsifying Halal stickers on meat products. The issue has now become a pan European one. The problem has been further compounded by the finding that horse meant intended for human consumption had traces of a substances injected into race horses to improve their performance.
There is yet no scientific evidence on the effect of this drug phenyIbutazone on human beings. The UK Standards Agency on 14 February said that “a drug potentially harmful to human health” was found in eight dead horses, three of which were exported to France. France’s Consumer Minister has declared that a French company Spanghero, a wholesaler had been responsible for what he called a “business scam”.
The first agent in the chain to falsely label the horse meat as beef seems to be Spanghero. The fraudulent sale of horse meat has been going on spanning 13 countries, involving 28 companies. At the end of the supply chain the gullible consumer buying a beef lasagne from a frozen food manufacturer like Findus in Britain ends up being fed potentially dangerous horse meat.
British Police had made arrests at a meat processing plant in Aberystwyth and a slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire, where horse DNA was found in fresh beef products. The West Yorkshire slaughterhouse had a contract to remove fatally injured race horses after the Grand National steeplechase horse race. In schools in Staffordshire a potentially harmful drug was found in the man food chain and foreign beef was taken off the menu.
The products marketed as beef sold by the meat processor Findus had a convoluted supply chain which will warm the hearts of globalisation pundits. The product were manufactured by a Swedish company who sourced processed meat from a French company in Luxembourg, who in turn sourced the product from a Cypriot trader, who sourced through the Netherlands, and the Netherland dealer bought the horse meat from a Romanian slaughter house.
Consumers refuse to pay higher prices for ready-to-eat meals. Manufacturers keep relentless pressure on suppliers to keep costs down, suppliers source from whoever offers the best price.
It fits the classic definition of globalisation by the doyen, founder/former Head of Infosys, the leading BPO in India, Narayana Murthy: “Sourcing from the cheapest, manufacturing at the cheapest location, selling for the highest price, ignoring national boundaries.” Pro-globalisers will love it. Anti-globalisers will join the ‘international conspiracy’ band wagon!
There are no dedicated supply lines in the meat industry; purchasing is done from independent suppliers, on the basis of the best price. Some cultures like the Italians who adore horse meat as ‘prosicutto di cavllo’ and the Chinese, who consume half a million tons of horsemeat a year, will have no problems with this. The problem is the inaccurate labelling and the passing off as beef.
Where will the buck stop?
The issue is, what were the regulators and various government agencies set up to protect the consumer from this sort of hazard doing? Has anybody taken responsibility and handed in his resignation? Sure it seems to be an international conspiracy – so beloved by the political class, who can never admit to the blame and take responsibility for the hazards they place upon the people.
But where will the buck stop? Whose head will roll? Will the matter end up being ‘shaped up’ as in the South Asian tradition? Stephen Leacock, a Canadian political economist described a policy maker thus: “He flung himself on his horse and rode madly off in all directions!” That would be an accurate description of the situation.