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Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jen B. #

    The issue of not killing “cute” animals has come up recently, as it does every few years, as regards hunting polar bears: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/national/Polar+bear+statue+heralds+fight+with+Canadian+Inuit+over/7824273/story.html
    It is so irritating, because the EU has very few countries that have polar bears, and Denmark is allied with Canada against the ban, but it is environmental political capital where they can say, “Look, we’re saving fuzzy bears!” as opposed to doing anything productive, like lowering carbon emissions or advancing renewable energy. Meanwhile, this has been one of the few ways that Inuit can apply traditional hunting skills within a modern economy, either selling pelts, or guiding visiting hunters. Also, polar bears are vicious, bloodthirsty creatures and the sooner they are extinct, the better.

    February 4, 2013
  2. Jen B. #

    Also, I agree with you about the equivalence between low quality food and poverty. I’ve had people say to me that First Nations can’t be that poor if they have a huge problem with Type 2 diabetes, but it is in fact precisely because of poverty that they eat lower quality food that is higher in fat, and other crap, evidently. Their best source of quality meat is what they hunt, but meanwhile Paul Bloody McCartney wants to protect the seals, the EU wants to protect the polar bears, everyone wants to protect the belugas, there are caribou and fox conservation schemes… it is so weird, because I am pretty sure there is less impact on the environment from killing a seal to eat than there is to ship low-quality, overpriced meat thousands of kilometers north by sea and air.

    I feel like I may have had this hissy fit on your blog already. If so, sorry about that :)

    February 4, 2013
    • Don’t apologise at all! Thank you so much for your fascinating comments. I think that we underestimate the extent to which snobbery and sentimentalism influence ideas around animal welfare, and also the diets of people who are poor or have difficulty accessing good, healthy food.

      February 4, 2013
  3. I also found the reaction due to cultural reasons fascinating. Living in a Muslim country where all meat is Halal (expect in the pork section) the pork issue was the thing that shocked people more. I’d also struggle to eat dog, but know that this is at odds with my enthusiasm for wild rabbit. I do think that if chickens were cuter there would be more of a back lash about their conditions (as there would be if the reality of factory farmed rabbits was exposed).

    Another worrying aspect of this long food chain is how horses bred for racing are becoming food – meaning that we are potentially ingesting carcinogenic chemicals banned in food grade animals.

    The closeness of the FSA with the big players in industrialised food sends a chill down my spine.

    February 5, 2013
    • Thanks so much for this – and I was curious about what you would think, living in Dubai. I was reminded of a similar scandal in South Africa a couple of years ago, where outrage centred around the presence of pork in otherwise Halal products.

      Chill is indeed the word. And I need to read around the cancer risk of horsemeat.

      February 5, 2013
      • It was covered on the BBC Food Programme episode about the scandal – plus the fact that value burgers can legally contain 49% meat.

        February 5, 2013
      • Saskia #

        Yes, that’s what I thought the hysteria was about – that the horse meat might not have been safe for consumption (the horses might’ve been given antibiotics that meant they couldn’t be eaten; hard to check this as the horse meat wasn’t meant to be there in the first place).
        And I think perhaps eating dogs is different, though, as they are carnivores/omnivores. I draw the line at eating another carnivore, just feels a bit funny.

        February 7, 2013
        • You know – it does. I’ve had crocodile before, and felt odd about it eating it for precisely the same reason. There have been some concerns about the quality of the horsemeat, and I should have considered that more carefully.

          February 7, 2013
  4. I was following this discussion amused, I m Belgian and in Belgium eating horse meat is a delicacy – and completely normal.
    I don’t eat it, I don’t eat rabbit either. I admit I find myself a bit silly because of it. As a small child I used to love the cured horse meat ham we eat here in Belgium.
    But the thing is, I primarily don’t eat horse here in Belgium because only a small part is used of the animal, the leg to cure and steak.
    This are the only two horse products -generally- In a town near to where I live there are also horse sausages. But I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
    So I can’t help but wonder what happens to the rest of the animal, if we use only a small part of it.
    When the British press stated – cheap horse meat was used- I frowned. Horse meat is very expensive and a very high quality meat. Here in Belgium anyway.
    A horse steak is traditionally given to the poorly to gain strength.
    But then I thought, the horse meat we have in Belgium is expensive, most likely because so little of an animal is used. Maybe the slaughter houses sell the rest of the horse meat on to be processed into – cheap burgers.
    It would make sense.
    I do think you get a better burger in that case.
    I also think the pork DNA that was found is far more offensive due to religious reasons.
    But… the box should say what is in the product.
    So in my opinion the only mistake they made is to call it -beef burgers-
    And also the heritage of the horse meat should be checked, like Sally says, butchering race horses is a big no-no.
    Thanks for this interesting post!

    February 5, 2013
    • Thanks so much for your comment. I had no idea that horsemeat is, essentially, a delicacy in Belgium. How interesting.

      And *amazing* blog, by the way.

      February 5, 2013
      • Thank you very much :) I’m new to your blog as well, found it because Sally posted a link to this post. Very happy I did!
        And yes it is a delicacy, it’s very nice. The cured meat (ham) is either very salty or very sweet, there are two choices. Very interesting taste. But I’m quite at ease with the cured meat as the animal should be medicine and stress free in order to get a good cured ham. If it had any medicine or stress the meat would turn sour…

        February 5, 2013
        • Really? That’s fascinating.

          So glad you like the blog!

          February 5, 2013
  5. Most interesting – living in central africa, of course any ‘meat’ hereabouts is considered ‘game’ – and bushmeat, especally. Food Culture…

    February 5, 2013
    • Thanks! I’d entirely forgotten about the game/bushmeat distinction. I should think about that more.

      February 5, 2013
      • :-) I do have mixed feelings about the bushmeat dimension – it’s so important as a protein source for many, and yet…

        February 5, 2013

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