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Culture, Capitalism, and Horse Meat

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).