Editorial: England horse meat issue about more than just sanitation
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 3, 2013 21:03
When Upton Sinclair wrote in his 1906 novel “The Jungle” about deplorable unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, the newly consumerist masses of the United States responded with revulsion to the contaminated and adulterated contents of their sausages, rather than to the economic oppression of the workers who produced them. Similarly, the carnivores of Europe who have recently been made aware of the presence of horse meat in their meatballs, hamburgers and Bolognaise sauces have called into question the efficacy of their governments’ regulatory mechanisms for having overlooked such obvious contamination of the food supply.
Human consumption of horse meat, however, is hardly dangerous: in many cultures such a practice is commonplace. There has yet been found no substantial health risk associated with the trace equine contamination of many foods throughout the European Union. Yet in Britain, the cultural reticence to eat horse meat greatly overrides the consideration of safety. British horses seem, by their historical nobility, to occupy a higher station in their relationship to humans than, say, cattle. They plowed the fields, powered agricultural machinery and went to war alongside His Majesty’s Armed Forces. Thus on the basis of a trivial contamination of horse meat in their products, British supermarkets are prepared to destroy 10 million burgers to mollify an outraged public. And now meat vendors the world over, from Europe to America to Asia, are at pains to reassure their consumers that such a deplorable oversight could never affect their products.
It is striking that far more dangerous contamination of meat products, such as that caused by E coli. or Salmonella, fails to capture the attention of the consumer public. Five years ago, for instance, nine people died and about 200 more were sickened by an outbreak of E. coli that affected American peanut butter produced at a single manufacturing plant in Georgia, while the so-called horse meat crisis has medically harmed no one.
But the current European hand-wringing over the content of their meat products does call to attention the fact that most of the food that the developed world consumes is manufactured through large-scale industrial operations. Even under the most stringent of food inspection and regulatory regimes, all of our foodstuffs are treated with chemical preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers and additives that we might consider repulsive on their own. There is no such thing a “natural food” or a “pure food,” though we might like to believe so. We must accept a certain level of adulteration for our own good as consumers. But despairing over inadvertent consumption of horse meat is especially odious because it distracts from the potentially injurious and deadly bacterial and chemical contamination of food which has claimed so many lives in the modern era.