Culture, Capitalism, and Horse Meat

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.