There is a saying about the food culture in China that what is edible includes everything on four legs, except the table. Of course, the food culture includes a whole host of things with fewer legs as well. As a result I was not surprised that the recent European Horse Meat scandal has not had much of a ripple here in Hong Kong, with the exception of the local Ikea stores supposedly withdrawing their meatballs (as reported in the Huffington Post).
Quite frankly, I am with the Hong Kongers on this. It seems a shame to waste what is perfectly healthy food. What is more, horses are a bit of a problem. Within a generation horses went from being a must have item for every household, and thereby ensuring that there are a lot, to something that only a few might consider or be able to own. Indeed, as Nadia Arumugam has argued the recent ban on horse carts in Romania probably has something to do with the glut of horses available for slaughter (though I am not convinced that it hasn’t been an ingredient for even longer than the year that is admitted).
What is probably more disturbing to me about the whole scandal is the way that policy makers and the supermarkets are responding to it (putting aside the food wastage aspect as a result of pulling edible food off the shelves because of labelling). By far and away the solution most frequently offered is to increase DNA testing on food we eat and thereby increase the audit around foods. Here is an example of the sort of thing I mean from a former Tesco executive as quoted in the Telegraph:
“The current crisis in processed meat products highlights a growing concern that food in the UK is simply too cheap. A more comprehensive system of control and monitoring will be required in the future, which most likely will add cost to the weekly shop,”
I agree with the first part of the statement; at one level food is too cheap. It is particularly too cheap for the supermarkets. It used to be that a shop owner or butcher sourced the food from a supplier. The supplier could be a wholesaler, abattoir or the farmer. The shop owner was buying for one or two shops, so by necessity, suppliers had several customers that they sold their product to. It is well documented that supermarketization has meant that the power over prices lies with the ways that supermarket supply chains function. Supermarkets have exclusive supply chains, and they negotiate price on the basis of economies of scale. This creates a set of power relationships that benefit supermarket chains particularly in places where the only way for farmers to reach the market with their (mostly perishable) product is through the supermarkets. If a supermarket won’t buy your food you are up a creek, so to speak, and supermarkets know this so they demand lower and lower prices, particularly for the foods that poor people eat.
What I don’t agree with is the second part of the statement. Adding further audit to the process is not, in my opinion, the answer. When supply chains were a market, rather than the exclusive arrangement that they are now, the cost that the consumer paid was the costs of the farmer to raise the meat and make a bit of profit, plus the cost that the butcher or seller had for making the food available in the store–meaning getting it there and wrapping it up for the customer. Now the cost of our food includes a whole level of regulation and enforcement and audit to ensure that people follow the rules. Having said this, I also know that some good has come out of the advent of the supermarkets. According to Peter Atkinson it was because of the power of the supermarkets that milk grading (it is true, milk does not come out of the cow as skimmed) and the prohibition of lead as a whitening agent came about. Despite this, I think the problem is not that we are getting horse meat in our meatballs, but that we live in a culture where there is an assumption that people will, and indeed there is some encouragement to, cheat and lie to make more money. What links the milk scandals of the past with the horse meat problems of Europe, and probably also the baby milk scandals of China is the way that the value of a person is reduced to the money they have. In late Victorian and early Edwardian Britain this was the case and it has become so again with the global rise of neoliberalism, which promotes greed over care of ones neighbour.
For a link about why Americans (and probably also the British) don’t eat Horse Meat see this paper posted on Slate.
Nadia Arumugam’s article in Forbes is available from here.
The full Telegraph piece is available here.
For more on the place of supermarkets in determining what we eat and for how much a reasonable book is Supermarkets and Agri-food Supply Chains edited by David Burch and Geoffrey Lawrence (it is a much more interesting book than its title suggests, I promise!). Alternatively, Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped also makes an illuminating intervention.
Peter Atkinson’s book is called Liquid Materialities: A history of Milk, Science and the Law.