LONDON — First, there was “pink slime.” Then horsemeat. Most recently? “Desinewed meat.”
Recent revelations that such products have reached dinner tables, including horsemeat falsely labeled as beef in Europe, have cast an unappetizing light on the global food industry.
Critics say the widening horsemeat scandal in particular is a result of a food supply chain that has become too complex to be safe. Others say we are stuck with the system: In today’s world, foodstuffs are highly mobile commodities, while consumers have come to expect – and increasingly need – plentiful, cheap meat.
Genevieve Cazes-Valette, a French anthropologist who studies food, said that throughout history, people around the world have had a special and intense relationship with meat.
“When we fast, we don’t give up bread. We give up meat,” she said.
A century ago, meat was a dish primarily for special occasions or the rich. That’s still the case in much of the world, but today consumers in wealthy countries expect meat to be their primary source of protein, and they want it inexpensive and convenient. They’d also prefer not to think too hard about where it came from.
“They want cheap and they want good,” Cazes-Valette said.
Europe’s horsemeat scandal has exposed a food supply chain set up to fulfill that demand – one in which meat from a Romanian abattoir can end up in British lasagna by way of companies in Luxembourg and France.
Since horse DNA was found in burgers from an Irish plant last month, the scandal has snaked its way across the continent, exposing a haphazard system with seemingly little rhyme or reason.
Horsemeat is not generally considered unsafe to eat, but the scandal has triggered disgust in places such as Britain where it traditionally is not eaten and anger over the mislabeling of food products.
“In France as elsewhere, people have this idea that we don’t know quite what we’re eating. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know who has touched it,” Cazes-Valette said.
That unease stems partly from the fact that people in developed countries have become detached from the origins of the food they eat.
British Conservative lawmaker Mark Spencer argued in the House of Commons this week that the horsemeat crisis arose partly because “we have lost context of how valuable food is.”
“You could say the same about car tires,” he said. “You would never buy second-hand cheap car tires from someone on the cheap because you would instantly recognize that your own individual safety is at risk.”