Forget about vegetables, fruits and your New Year’s weight-loss resolution for a moment. Imagine a well-lit room, a hardwood table, and a pristine plate. A Harry Potter moment transpires, and two crisp, aromatic bacon pieces appear alluringly alongside a perfectly cooked steak, garnished just to your liking. It’s food porn at its finest. Even Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouth food perfectionist, would agree it’s fucking delicious. Would you eat it?
Well, nowadays, the answer depends on what’s in the meat. Known as 2013 Meat Adulteration Scandal, a series of investigation by European food authorities has detected presence of horsemeat in the beef products of several major food retailers in Europe. These investigations first began when Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) detected horse DNA in local supermarkets’ frozen beef burgers in December 2012. Since then, traces of horsemeat have been discovered in beef products in Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Romania, and Poland. Among those implicated in this scandal are Tesco, Aldi, ABP Food Group, and most recently Ikea. Apparently, even those seemingly innocuous meatballs of delight aren’t safe from horse contamination. What’s next? Fruit de Mare? Filly cheesesteak? Horse—pause—radish?
Perhaps, a little context may help relieve the uncertainty. In many ways, horsemeat is better than beef. It has lower fat, sodium and cholesterol, and according to a Guardian article, is on par with the finest beefsteak in terms of taste. The main concern with horsemeat is its lack of traceability, as horsemeat is typically not farmed, and whether or not it contains phenylbutazon (Read: “Bute”), a common medicine for horses that is dangerous for humans. So far, there has been no sign of bute contamination, but in a desperate attempt to trace the sources of mislabelled horsemeat, UK government hastily and falsely accused Romanian butchers, reminiscent of the martyred cucumber farmers in 2011 E-Coli Scandal. Meanwhile, consumer suspicion surged, country distrust spiraled, and beef sales slumped. As Rick Perry would say, “oops.”
Of course, food scandals happen quite frequently. Hog dogs were discovered to contain chicken carcasses and nitrate. Beef was linked to “Mad Cow” disease, or Bovine spongiform encephalopathy in 2003. The deadly SARS virus originated from wild animals sold as food in China in 2003. Most recently, consumers realized beef in United States contained pink slime, the harmful food additive, in 2012, while E-Coli outbreak sent fear across the Western world in both 2012 and 2013. Now, horsemeat is mixed with beef.
In comparison, horsemeat doesn’t seem to be the most harmful substance found in consumer goods. One of the foremost reasons for rejecting horsemeat is its taboo status in Anglophone nations such as U.K. and U.S., the citizens of which developed an aversion for consuming horse due to both religious and economic reasons. In the past, it was far less efficient to produce horsemeat than beef as horses only digest 70% of the food and contain less edible meat. As well, families treated horses as household pets and were reluctant to kill them due to sentimental reasons. However, times have changed and horsemeat is cheaper, largely due to lower demand. There is an increasing incentive to substitute beef with horse, and it may not be such a bad idea.
Many European countries still consider horsemeat a delicacy. For instance, Ukrainians create traditional sausage with horses, Swiss make Fondue Bourguignonne with horsemeat, and France include horsemeat in tartare and other haute cuisine dishes. The taboo sentiment is not shared across Europe, and the recent scandal has actually piqued the interest of many consumers. In a CBC report, Europe’s horsemeat scandal provided a boost to this niche industry and encouraged more people to try horsemeat. Its sales rose by 15 percent last week in France as curious foodies flocked to butcher shops for horsemeat. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
The central issue with food product mislabelling is certainly alarming, but this newfound attention to horsemeat invites a much-needed discussion on the future of food in a highly interconnected global economy. It is easy to forget that Beef, Chicken and Pork are all taboo in different parts of the world although they are commonly accepted in North American cultures. By overcoming the polarizing issues of globalization, we set precedents for open-mindedness and societal progress.
– Jimmy Lou
(Featured photo: fatuousplatitudes, Creative Commons, Flickr)