Horse meat mathematics


Always looking for topical examples to engage her charges with their studies, our NQT diarist introduces them to horse meat mathematics...

“When are we ever going to use this?” This is a question all teachers of mathematics will have to battle at some point in their careers and not because mathematics is not crucial to society. 

Mathematics underpins everything – numeracy skills are fundamental to paying bills, choosing the correct bank account, deciding which mortgage offers the best interest rate. 

Considering purer mathematics, even if you never plan on solving a quadratic equation again after the age of 16, the logical and problem-solving skills you will have developed through the pursuit of understanding algebra will be invaluable. 

Of course mathematics is always easier to “sell” if the topic you are using in your lessons is current and engaging; that is why I am enjoying the horse meat scandal.

No, I am not enjoying the concept of some of the most gentle and beautiful of God’s creatures being carted in terrible conditions from Romania to feed into the mass profit-making UK frozen food industry – I am enjoying the facts, figures and percentages riddling the news headlines as fresh fodder for lessons.

Let’s take one story as an example. Revelations that a chilli con carne made by one company’s Belgian supplier was found to contain two per cent equine DNA have led the firm to withdraw three of its ready meals from sale in the UK – traditional spaghetti bolognese (340g), shepherd’s pie (400g) and beef lasagne (400g). 

If these three ready meal products contained two per cent horse meat, what mass of horse meat would you expect to find in each? This type of problem can be easily extended – given that the average riding horse weighs around 450kg, assuming that all parts of the horse are used, how many of each ready meal could you make with one horse at two per cent horse meat content? What if you decided to increase the horse meat content to 20 or 55 per cent? 

If we were willing to get a little morbid, we could steer the lesson down the phenylbutazone route and investigate the concentrations of this horse pain killer required to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans. How many “beef” burgers we would actually need to consume to reach this level of concentration? 

What about French cuisine? A little digging on Google provides a wealth of mathematical magic – if there are 25,549,200 households in France and around 16 per cent of French households buy horse meat, how many houses is this? Big numbers like this are exciting, how could we write 25,549,200 in words? What if we rounded it to the nearest hundred, or million? How would we write it in standard form?

After this, it is important to round off with a discussion to address some of the underlying philosophical questions – why is it socially acceptable in the UK to consume certain herbivores but not others? Why are we worried about being kept in the dark about the animal we are consuming, but are not panicking about the lack of clear labelling in terms of preservatives and additives? 

Where is the logic in some of the poorest people in the UK throwing out frozen meals during a recession? Is it our human right to have a portion of meat with dinner each evening, or should we be eating less meat but of better quality?

I always love the shock on the pupils’ face as I round off with stories of the lambs, cows and horses on the farm where I used to work and the revelation that I am a vegetarian. “But Miss, what do you eat?!”

  • Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.


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