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Culture, Capitalism, and Horse Meat

Brits take the scandal harder than mainland Europe; the usual suspects blame capitalism.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

February 22, 2013 - 12:00 am

If you’re planning a vacation to Britain or mainland Europe this year, when dining you might want to skip the lasagna, moussaka, and cottage pie, and stick with the seafood and chicken while we sort this horse meat thing out.

Food suppliers have been passing off horse meat as beef; it’s likely been going on for years. In the past few weeks, horse meat has been identified across Europe in products ranging from frozen “ready meals” to school lunches. In some cases only a trace of equine DNA was discovered; in others — notably lasagna and bolognese meals produced by a French processing company — the “beef” component has been found to be almost entirely horse. Nestle, the world’s biggest food producer, is pulling beef pasta meals from supermarkets in Italy and Spain.

The affair has exposed the complex and murky workings of the European meat trade, a labyrinthine network of abattoirs, processing plants, and middlemen supplying vast supermarket firms. Further, the supply chain has links beyond Europe. Imports of horse meat to the European Union from Mexico have grown dramatically in recent years, and much of that meat comes from horses shipped south from the United States.

Though the scandal stretches throughout Europe, no one appears to be more scandalized than us Brits — we pride ourselves on being a nation of “animal lovers,” and prefer to think we have a keen sense of fair play. While there is presently no evidence of a risk to health (some horse meat has been found to contain traces of an anti-inflammatory drug, but not enough to pose a threat to humans), no one likes to be told that they haven’t been eating what they think they’ve been eating. And Britons appear to be especially incensed at being told they’ve been eating horse.

It might seem odd that we recoil from eating horse while happily tucking into cows, pigs, and sheep, but — as in the U.S. — the consumption of horse meat is taboo in Britain. Horses are considered pets, and are associated with sports, ceremony, and military tradition. It’s also one of those things we like to think separates us from our “less civilized” continental neighbors, particularly the French, many of whom are partial to viande de cheval (something liberal American Francophiles who look to the country as a model might need to think about). So while in much of Europe the scandal is an everyday story of corrupt business practices, in Britain it’s become an occasion for national soul-searching and high outrage.

Questions are being asked in Parliament, and we are looking for someone to blame. Given the nature of the current food industry, that isn’t proving easy. While British slaughterhouses and processing plants are suspected of supplying adulterated burgers to takeaway restaurants and school cafeterias, much of the horse meat that has found its way onto UK supermarket shelves has its origins in mainland Europe. And if, as is widely suspected, the scandal is the work of organized criminals, they are taking advantage of a flawed system.

The scandal has exposed the failings of the EU, which after taking over the power to legislate on food standards from national governments, introduced a system for tracking food shipments that has proven to be wide open to abuse. The affair has also undermined the whole notion of the European “single market.” As the EU expands, that market is increasingly hard to police. And EU law means countries are not allowed to discriminate, by way of more rigorous testing or bans, between domestically produced beef and a shipment from a Palermo meat-packing company delivered by a couple of guys in striped suits and fedoras.

Britain’s own Food Standards Agency, which is tasked with enforcing EU laws, has also been found wanting.

Then there are the supermarket chains, now engaged in frantic damage control. The inexorable rise of the grocery giants has been good for consumers in many respects, giving them access to a range of products that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, and at affordable prices. But they’ve also spawned a tangled web of suppliers and processing firms, and while there is no suggestion that retailers selling beef products knew them to be adulterated, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that they didn’t ask too many questions of their suppliers. As long as the products were cheap, perhaps no one wished to investigate.

However, the supermarkets wouldn’t have flourished if people weren’t buying what they were selling; a good deal of responsibility for the current crisis must lie with consumers who have been demanding ever-cheaper and more processed food without considering how it might be possible. Further, this has not primarily been a matter of saving money, but instead a matter of convenience. Anyone inclined to do so could live well on fresh food for the same or for less than they would spend on all but the cheapest ready meals. Many people simply can’t be bothered to buy and cook fresh food. They are entitled to choose that lifestyle, but they shouldn’t be all too surprised that some immoral actors in the industry would exploit a lax consumer.

The usual suspects on the left have tried to pin the blame for the crisis on “unregulated” free-markets, capitalism, and the entire British Conservative party, as if there were no such things as corruption and dishonesty under communism and socialism. Attacks on the free market also ignore that Europe’s single market was already a long way from being “free,” and employ the strawman that conservatives are against all regulation. Indeed, it appears the problem isn’t a lack of regulation, but the ineffectiveness of enforcement.

Predictably, some have leapt aboard the scandal to demand that it’s time for us all to go vegetarian. You would think our food was being adulterated with iron filings, or as was the case in China a few years ago, with melamine, rather than with small amounts (in most cases) of meat that is not substantively different from the product it purports to be. Also, horse is widely eaten in other countries (horse meat is, by all accounts, a bit sweeter than beef and more gamey; I haven’t — knowingly — tried it myself).

You don’t, however, have to be a Portland-dwelling “local and organic“ nut to believe it would be no bad thing if more of us consumed food from closer to home, thus supporting local producers and small businesses and encouraging farmers who promote higher standards of welfare for the animals we eat. We’d also get fresher and tastier food into the bargain. Polls in Britain have indicated that a sizeable minority of shoppers are indeed changing their buying habits, and will be reacquainting themselves with their local butcher (if he’s still in business) rather than buying processed meat products from the big supermarkets.

Only time will tell if it’s a real change in attitudes rather than a knee-jerk response, but it’s a reminder of how the free market can work at its best: consumers punish companies that don’t provide a decent product by taking their business elsewhere.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (12)
All Comments   (12)
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Odd; I had read that European beef was tracked from birth to slaughter.
Perhaps only the actual cuts of meat, and not 'meat products' ?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'll have a Mr Ed burger with a side of My Little Pony fries.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'll just say "Neigh!"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It reminds me of Hurricane Katrina. As long as people could build their homes wherever they wanted to, people in New Orleans built houses on high ground. Along came the government, with all of its regulators and experts, which said: you can only build your houses where we approve and yes, the well-connected developers who got the corps of engineers to drain the swamps of New Orleans East are approved to sell their houses, but no, you may not build on the high ground because you do not have the proper permits.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In The Black Obelisk (which I heartily recommend as an insight on how that guy rose to power) Erich Maria Remarque chose as the typical, honest , hardworking German dealing with hyperinflation a horse butcher. It seems to have been a respectable occupation, at least between the wars.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In our time we don't know when we are eating gene manipulated meat or vegetables. I think it's a bigger problem. It's a shame. Because if the horse can be beef, or a rabbit maybe cat (who knows? i've heard, that they are almost similar), then the gene manipulated corn, or tomato are not the same tomato or corn as we knew them.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would say the likelihood of this effecting a long-term in British dietary and purchasing habits is virtually zero. The overwhelmingly dominant driver is price, and the large chains have an unbeatable advantage over smaller producers there. What people say they are going to do in the wake of these revelations and what they actually do will probably be very different things. 'Revealed preferences' will lend the lie to any pious locavore notions of buying more expensive food from artisanal sources.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Is horse meat unhealthy or something? Otherwise, who cares?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
horse meat is not unhealthy per se, but many horses (especially race horses and show horses) are given massive doses of growth hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals that make their way into the meat, causing it to become unfit for homan consumption.

But quite apart from that the problem is, like with the US fish scandal that's ongoing, that the products are mislabeled.
And in many countries, that people are sold cheap horsemeat as expensive beef (beef can cost 2-3 times as much as horse in the EU).
Hence the fraud investigations, not public health and safety.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, look on the bright side - at least it reduced by some infinitesimal amount the risk of contracting mad cow disease...lol.

More seriously, I just don't get this whole cow = acceptable meat / horse = unacceptable meat thing.

I see that as just a progression of the same inclinations that people have in developing emotional ideas regarding pigs or something - specifically when they are not in direct contact with the animals being raised for meat.

I blame Disney...but anyway....

Horses, like cows, are livestock. Useful livestock, to be sure, but still livestock.

I mean, I grew up in a rural area and I've eaten fish, fowl, cow, sheep, pig, deer, bear, snake, alligator.....what makes a horse so special?

Oh, and I've eaten horse too....

The only question in my mind is where are the slaughterhouses getting the horses from?

I would think anyone who saw their horse as a pet would have greater love for them than to send them off to a slaughterhouse when they outlived their usefulness. Aside from any contamination from drugs, that is the thing about this story that's bothersome to me.

In my opinion, if people don't like the idea of eating Trigger, then don't order it off of the menu - but I agree at the same time that the menu SHOULD accurately reflect what is actually being served.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"the consumption of horse meat is taboo in Britain. Horses are considered pets, and are associated with sports, ceremony, and military tradition. It’s also one of those things we like to think separates us from our “less civilized” continental neighbors, particularly the French, many of whom are partial to viande de cheval (something liberal American Francophiles who look to the country as a model might need to think about). So while in much of Europe the scandal is an everyday story of corrupt business practices, in Britain it’s become an occasion for national soul-searching and high outrage."

What a hypocrit ranter, you, Brits, have no problem to give cows dead animals reduced into powder, even if they are dead horses

Thank you for your mad cows
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" notably lasagna and bolognese meals produced by a French processing company "

not only, Swizerland, Luxemburg, Germany... were involved ... bizarrely the horses were romanian, and some Brit too, but these Brit horse had some sanity problem with forbidden medecine remains

It's all due to global free market rules, Companies take their products from the less expensive productors , and it's going worst, today the meat still comes from Europe, what will it be when it will come from a unknown source in Asia... Africa....
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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