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