Rats sold in a Hackney market! An undercover BBC investigation yesterday must have had London heaving over their evening supper. There were only two problems. Were they actually selling rats, and why was the underlining assumption that such meat should be banned outright as opposed to being regulated?
The ‘rat’ in question is very different from the British rat. It’s commonly called a Grasscutter, otherwise known as a Cane Rat, and is eaten across Africa.
Several times larger than its’ British relative, this rodent is not a scavenger or associated with disease and plagues. Cane Rats are not found in dustbins but are actually herbivores living in marshy areas.
And while they are both regarded as pests the African version has earned that reputation by eating crops, such as sugar cane, not scurrying around towns in search of rubbish.
The BBC reporter, Guy Lynn, did cover himself by once referring to Cane Rats and acknowledging that it is a “delicacy” in parts of Africa, however the overriding impression given to viewers was that rats were on sale in Dalston’s Ridley Road market.
There was no mention of the fact that Cane Rats are farmed as livestock and traded as cleanly as any other meat on offer ‘back home’.
As for it being a “delicacy”, this word has surfaced in several media reports about east Asians eating dogs or sharks fins, neither of which inspire much understanding on the part of the average British viewer.
At the very least greater care needed to be taken to differentiate between Grasscutters and common British rats. But that would cut a gaping hole in the sensationalism of the story.
I don’t support the selling of unhealthy meat, far from it. All meat should adhere to the same high health standards.
Which brings me to the assumption in the BBC’s report that because the meat was sold with sub-standard hygiene and illegally imported without any regulation it must be stamped out by the authorities.
No consideration was given to the desire of African peoples’ to eat bushmeat, or any thought that they are only buying it under these conditions because it is not readily available anywhere else.
Of course African families would rather eat hygienic bushmeat sold over the counter rather than under it. They know unscrupulous Ridley Road traders are taking advantage of them.
But that is not the whole story. The answer, quite simply, is to licence and regulate the bushmeat market instead of driving it underground.
If the BBC had embraced this point there would have been no complaint from me.
In a five minute report – quite long by their standards – surely the last minute could have been devoted to this?
A selection of legal bushmeat can increasingly be found at South African stores which tend not to be located in neighbourhoods where black Africans live and, in any case, are often priced out of their range.
Yet there is clearly a significant market for reasonably-priced bushmeat in the inner cities, including meat such as the Grasscutter which does not appear to be legally available anywhere.
What we need is a proper regime for the importation and sale of bushmeat instead of treating the whole issue with disgust.
Likewise we need to ease tariffs on imported Caribbean foodstuffs to reduce prices to consumers. Many of these foods are not delicacies but staples.
And African and Caribbean businesses should have the opportunities to meet their customers’ demands instead of waiting for Tesco’s to sell them.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway