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.

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.