How can you be sure that you are buying beef and not horsemeat?

The food industry has taken a huge knock in the last few weeks, as reports of beef products containing horse DNA have hit the headlines, and consumers have struggled to come to grips with the scale of what is now thought to be criminal activity within the system. As politicians warn that it is supposedly the cheaper products on our shelves that are at risk from contamination, and as such they have surmised that poorer families who rely on these products are more likely to have bought them, what can we all do to ensure what is stated on the packet is what we are actually eating?

Photograph: JoeFoxFoodandDrink/Alamy

Photograph: JoeFoxFoodandDrink/Alamy

If you are on a budget it can be incredibly difficult to purchase higher end products from bigger named brands, and as the Findus fiasco showed us, well-known labels are not immune to this scandal. But there are a few simple tips that you can follow, that will ensure that you and your family are eating what you think you are eating. And most of our tips involve going back to basics.

1. Cook from scratch

The further away from looking like a piece of meat the product gets, the easier it is to disguise the type of meat it really is. So consider, for example, a piece of steak and a lasagne. How hard would you find it to disguise horse meat as a piece of steak? Most people would know what beef steak looks like, what it smells like, and more importantly, how it cooks and tastes like. Once you begin to interfere with the meat, by mincing it down, adding chemicals, preservatives, flavourings etc and then putting it into a ready-made meal such as a spaghetti bolognese or a lasagne, we can no longer tell what type of meat it is.

So if you want to eat a cottage pie, or spaghetti or meatballs or indeed any meal that includes minced meat, either buy the beef mince yourself and cook from scratch, or, if you are still not convinced, then ask the supermarket or your butcher to mince steak up for you. This way you are starting off with the basic ingredient, and not ending up with something different altogether.

2. Go to a farmshop

Yes these are typically more expensive but the whole argument about the horsemeat scandal is ‘What did people expect was in cheaper meat products?’ Well perhaps ‘we’ as consumers have been a little naive then, but not anymore, as surveys are now showing that sales of ready-made meals that contain beef have dramatically fallen, since the reports of contaminated products hit the headlines. If you still want to consume burgers, cottage pies, lasagnes etc find your local farmshop and buy from there. They will be more expensive, but perhaps we should view these ready-made meals as an occasional treat, instead of a cheaper option, if we want someone else to make it for us.

3. Buy chicken or fish

We are not saying eat chicken or fish forever, but it will not do anyone any harm to forgo red meat for a few months while the scandal is sorted out by the FSA. And the good thing about buying chicken and fish is that if you buy the products whole you can see exactly what you are getting. And the difference between chicken and fish products is that you can still get relatively cheap ready meals that contain these meats, that have not been affected by the horsemeat contamination. So if you are on a budget and you need to buy ready meals, you can still get good quality chicken goujons or nuggets, and fish fingers, which are high in vitamins and proteins and low in fat.