British Horse Hystericism

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the course of my trip (which I have been on since the 6th and will continue to be on until the 17th–blog posting, in the meantime, is consequently limited and intermittent), I have found myself watching news on television. This is something I do rarely, in no small part because TV news tends to be both repetitive and devoid of intellectual content. Very nearly every time I have turned on the news, whether it be the BBC or Sky, the story invariably has been about the fact that recently, there was some horse meat found in meat that was purported to be from cattle, not horses. The more I hear about this story, the more irrelevant it seems to me to be. Here’s why.

Often the word “contaminated” is used, as if beef were healthy, but horse meat were somehow known to be poisonous or deadly. This is not so–the eating of horses even today is a relatively common global practise. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5 million horses are eaten a year globally, and there is nothing especially dangerous or poisonous about horse meat relative to the meat of other animals. In a response to an increase in the popularity of eating horse meat globally, the USDA is once again inspecting horse meat and has even purportedly endorsed it as a healthy source of meat in the past.

Some argue that the point is not that horse meat is itself dangerous, but that the scandal shows that we do not know what is in our food, and that much of what is in it could in fact be dangerous without our knowing it. I am suspicious of this argument.

First and foremost, replacing harmless food with different harmless food is not the same sort of decision for a food manufacturer as a decision to replace harmless food with something that can hurt people. The risks are fundamentally different. If I, as someone involved in the meat manufacturing process, replace some beef with horse meat, I am not running the risk of killing anyone or making anyone ill. The only way anyone would know that I had made the replacement would be if I used so much horse meat that it became impossible for it to be mistaken as beef or if suspicious individuals tested my meat purely on the basis of being suspicious or unwilling to trust me. The latter is what happened. No harm was done by the replacement in and of itself–the food’s taste was not distorted to the point at which it was obvious, no one was made ill, and no one died.

Now, if instead of replacing the harmless beef with harmless horse meat, I replaced it with say, tainted beef, the circumstances would be very different. I would not be able to easily get away with something like that, because people would get sick, people would die, perhaps the taste would even be different such that it was clear right away that something wrong had happened. The aftermath in such a scenario would be very bad for me, the source of the taint–I would be sued, I would be jailed, I would lose my business, my income, my ability to support my family, and so on. There are a great many deterrents to replacing healthy meat with tainted meat that simply do not exist when the replacement is also healthy or otherwise harmless. It’s a smart business decision to replace healthy meat with cheaper healthy meat, if one can get away with it. It is extremely stupid to replace healthy meat with tainted meat, because the very fact that the meat is tainted means that getting away with it is almost certainly impossible.

A similar story happened in the United States a short time ago–perhaps some readers will remember it. It was called the “pink slime” scandal. Pink slime was a perfectly harmless food additive used in the manufacture of beef, but when the existence of pink slime received publicity, it produced a severe backlash. Because consumers did not know or expect that pink slime was in their beef, they assumed that it was dangerous or harmful, and so many people began avoiding beef until the additive was removed. The cry again went up that consumers do not have sufficient knowledge of what is in their food, that as a result, it might be tainted or poisonous or what have you.

The fact of the matter is that most governments in modern developed countries have regulatory bodies that oversee the content of our food to ensure that it is healthy. In the United States, for example, the federal government has been regulating the food industry since the passage of the Wiley Act in 1906 and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. For the most part, these regulatory bodies do a very good job–outbreaks of diseases caused by truly tainted food are extremely rare in the developed world, and most of them are blown out of proportion by the media. Mad Cow Disease, for instance, has only killed 200 people worldwide, a paltry sum compared with the terrible threats posed by heart disease or cancer.

All these media food freak outs achieve is a populace that is afraid to buy food that is at worst no more unhealthy than any of the other food out there, and may well be quite good for it. Many farmers and manufacturers, who produce perfectly suitable food and who are not even guilty of having replaced healthy food with other healthy food, will suffer depreciated sales as a result, and the economy of the country in question (in this case the UK) will suffer. Food activists claim that the unwillingness of food companies to make transparent their food contents indicates that there is something wrong with said food, but perhaps what is really feared is irrational uproars over low cost, harmless (or even healthy) additives. Were the contents of our foods to be made universally known, would we really trust food companies any more than we presently do under the current regulatory structure, or would we simply use that information to create more food scares?

The result of such transparency and such scares might be that additives would be removed and that food would become more organic, more “pure”, but would such food really be substantially better for us? It would certainly be both more expensive and less available to the world’s poor. Additives and chemicals allow food companies to produce more food for less money. Those lower food costs are a godsend to the people of the developing world, where marginal changes in food prices save or squander large numbers of lives. Shall our fixation on making our food “pure” come at the cost of starving African children? Scratch that–shall it come at the cost of the developed world’s poor and hungry? Many people in countries no less wealthy than the United States are hungry; marginal changes in food prices can augment or reduce that incidence. Many, many more Americans are adversely effected by hunger than have been adversely effected in modern times by tainted food. The crusade to purify the food of the developed world’s fearful rich comes at the cost not only of the undeveloped world’s poor, but of the larger, silent, unspoken for poor and working communities in the developed world itself. Even supposing that organic food were to some degree better, surely those quality improvements would have to be counterbalanced against the needs of those who simply do not have the surplus income to spend a few extra percentage points of their incomes on food. So with that in mind, let’s cease to lavish attention on the fearful weeping of bourgeois foodies and focus on the true sources of suffering–poverty, hunger, unemployment, and so on down the line.