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It's 12p for a burger, but you do get some change

Thirteen years ago, a trial in Yorkshire revealed that hundreds of tons of poultry declared unfit for human consumption had entered the food chain. For several years, five men had operated a nationwide scam, selling chicken and turkey destined for pet food to butchers' shops, restaurants and supermarkets. Stomach-churning details emerged of how they'd washed the meat to get rid of mould and faeces, and soaked it in brine to remove the stench. The judge criticised the gang for targeting discount supermarkets serving poorer consumers who couldn't afford more expensive cuts of meat.

This scam posed a much greater risk to human health than anything that's emerged so far in the horse DNA scandal which has caused embarrassment to one household name – Tesco, Lidl, Iceland, Aldi – after another. Food scandals sound like something from the Victorian era, when so much rubbish was added to bread, beer and coffee that the first Food Adulteration Act had to be passed in 1860; these days, there's a mass of regulations to make sure shoppers can trust what it says on the packet – or that's what most people seem to have imagined until Ireland's Food Standards Agency triggered a stream of revelations about traces of horse in popular foodstuffs.

Two days ago, Findus was the latest company to be dragged into the scandal, saying it was withdrawing its beef lasagne after some products were found to be 100 per cent horse. The thought of eating horse may make some queasy, but so far no one's fallen ill from it, although Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, has asked if animal painkillers could have entered the human food chain. Even so, there's no escaping a simple conclusion: class is at the heart of what's gone wrong (again) with the food industry.

For years, supermarkets have taken out huge ads targeting poorer customers, and creating wildly unrealistic expectations about the price of food. Who really believes it's reasonable to pay £1 for eight burgers, one of the lines withdrawn by Tesco after being found to contain up to 29 per cent horse meat? Two things have come together here: the relentless pressure supermarkets place on suppliers, who have to produce food that can be sold at ridiculously low prices, and the credulity of consumers who don't have much money. Naturally they want to believe the cheap-food illusion they're offered every day, without giving much thought to how it's achieved.

Now the UK Food Standards Agency has told the industry to carry out tests for the presence of horse meat in all processed beef products. It believes two of the cases are linked to suppliers in Ireland and France, and says the evidence points to "either gross negligence or deliberate contamination in the food chain", which is why there's now a police inquiry – bad news for the food industry, which faces a loss of public trust. But good news in terms of human and animal health, as the true cost of low prices is exposed.

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