Oh dear, yet again Romania is in the news over here for something less than edifying. When I heard that horse meat had been found in pies, I thought "I bet I know where that came from."
So far the horse-meat debate has lacked realism. If a country has three quarters of a million horses and a horse lives on average, say, twenty years - then somewhere around forty thousand a year will expire annually if there is a steady population. They have to go somewhere - into pet food I'd assumed. My cats and dogs look pretty heathy too. Surely it can't be bad for them?
So what is wrong with eating horse-meat - if it isn't contaminated with veterinary drugs? Well there are two obstacles. One is that horses may be medicated with substances that can be acquired in Romania without a vet being involved. I used to buy bute over the counter. Besides, for a little money a sick horse can become "healthy" through bureaucratic intervention. I remember a conversation in Bucuresti with a veterinary student who admitted to having no interest in animals. What he looked forward to was a career at the border receiving bribes for signing papers.
The other obstacle is how horses (and indeed all livestock) are slaughtered. I cannot forget a Romanian veterinarian who pointed towards an abattoir and told me (his English was picturesque) "Auschwitz for animals". Romania has some appalling slaughterhouses - and in Britain a couple of disgusting examples have hit the news too. There will be problems in other European countries. But in Britain horses aren't rounded up by brutal mafia gangs whose kind would have been driving Jews or political prisoners into cattle trucks a few generations ago.
The Western media has alleged that the Romanian government is responsible for a glut of horse-meat because new laws banning livestock from highways have forced farmers to sell their horses. I hope that this isn't true, though experience tells me that it is very likely to be a factor. Nor was it edifying to hear a Romanian official complain that "criminal elements" were behind the horse-meat scandal. The implication was that no-one can be expected to resolve the situation if "bad people" are involved.
This week the Romanian Ambassador to Britain made a public statement that "Romanian people love horses as much as the British do". What a poor deluded man - or brazen liar! Horses are worked in draught in Romania because most farmers have no alternative. If they are adequately fed and not worked to death it is chiefly because horses are expensive assets. And I witnessed some dreadful abuse and neglect by Romanian farmers who were not so poor that they couldn't have done better. Now I admit that Britain could be an evil place a century ago when a million horses worked in draught. Don't forget that Black Beauty was written to promote animal welfare against a background of appalling abuse. Just as there were humane people in Britain back then, so there are some in Romania today. I remember a few good, kind horsemen (and women). But the overall situation for animals in Romania is grim, from badly shod horses to dogs chained up for their whole miserable lives. And as usual the "defense" is to deny that a problem exists. After all, what could the foreigners possibly know?
But we're still missing a huge contributory factor to the horse-meat debacle - the demand in Britain for 'cheap' meat. I buy meat from a farm where I can see the livestock in the field. But it's expensive - so I buy less meat and eat more rice, potatoes, vegetables and cereals. But many people prefer to stuff themselves with cheap pies, pasties and sausages. And they get fat, which just means that they need even more "budget" pies. These "consumers" aren't interested in animal welfare. Most of them don't really care what species provided the meat. So suppliers are sourcing cheap meat of dubious provenance from Romania (and, most likely, from other places too.) Why should we be surprised? Let's be honest, whether or not they are breaking the law, Romanian businessmen are responding to market forces.
It isn't commercially viable to raise horses solely for meat. Cows and sheep put on more flesh for a unit of input. Horse-meat is a by-product of breeding horses and working them. Poorly conformed youngstock and worn-out carthorses provide the meat. Romania has a lot of carthorses. Really, it was a trick missed not to market a cheap horse-burger in Britain!
I can only wish that one day the majority of the populations of both Britain and Romania develop a healthy respect for the wellbeing of animals.