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Horse meat, gender and food sovereignty

There is a food safety scandal sweeping Europe since the second week of 2013. Every week has brought more chilling details of how tainted our food production is and how we, as consumers, have our agency removed by fraudulent corporations that show utter disregard for our autonomy and right to choose what we eat. The scandal has been mostly focused on mislabeled food products containing horse meat while they were (probably still are) sold as beef. The responses to the scandal have ranged from baffling to downright complicit, with numerous “experts” bringing up the “silly” cultural taboos behind eating or not eating a certain product. At the Globe and Mail, one such expert says:

“It is completely irrational,” says Pierre Desrochers, who teaches food-policy courses at the University of Toronto, when I phone to ask him about the origins of culinary taboos. Prof. Desrochers grew up eating horse in Quebec, and it was quite nice. “What’s the difference between a horse and a goat?”

Europeans commenting on internet sites (from Gawker to local news sources) are similarly nonplused, their responses best summed as “who cares? horse is delicious anyway! I eat horse” etc

The issue, however, isn’t about “enjoying” horse meat or merely about being fed a type of meat without one’s knowledge. This is also about food sovereignty and our right to decide for ourselves and our families what we consume. This is, undisputedly, a feminist issue.

Women are disproportionately in charge of food preparations, food production, nutrition and planning of meals for their families. “Feeding” is still coded as a woman’s task, even in Europe, where gender equality is pretty much at the forefront of political agendas (though certainly not achieved by a long shot). Child care and child nutrition are still very much a feminized realm, with most women bearing the grunt of their children’s (and pretty much their entire household’s) nutrition. Women are disproportionately affected when corporations deceive consumers, removing their autonomy while treating a basic human right (access to food) as a second thought. Even more so, when the people buying the contaminated pre-prepared meals are working class women who juggle home care and work. This is when food sovereignty becomes a working class women issue, a matter of gender and politics.

A brief (and incomplete) timeline of the food production scandal in Europe so far:

  • It started on January 15th, when the Irish food authority found horse DNA in beef burgers
  • On January 17th, retailer Makro found horse (check the impressive list of affected products)
  • January 19th: Asda, Sainsbury, Lidl, Coop: horse, horse galore
  • On January 24th, Burger King UK reveals that on the tested beef burgers, at least 29% was horse meat (and they promise to drop the supplier)
  • On the first week of February, Swedish retailer Findus recalls products from their shelves because horse meat was found in their lasagna.

Lest anyone thinks dodgy food scandals are somewhat rare in Sweden:

  • in the beginning of January, right before the horse debacle started, it was reported that Swedes had eaten 70 tons of “fake beef” in the previous year
  • in October 2012 it was reported that “dyed pork” was being sold as cow beef
  • in June 2012, it was reported that “19-year-old rotten meat sold in Swedish shops” (TL;DR version: Canned meat from 1993 has been relabeled and resold in Swedish shops despite being rotten and severely lacking in nutritional value, according to a report in newspaper Svenska Dagbladet)

But back to 2013, our very own “Equine Year”,

  • on February 7th, the British Foods Standards Agency announced that they had found horse meat in lasagna produced by Findus
  • On February 7th, German supermarket chain Aldi recalled their lasagna and spaghetti bolognese because, you guessed it, they were made with horse meat
  • February 10th, you thought being fed horse was bad? LOL we lied, it wasn’t horse, it was actually donkey.
  • On February 11th, supermarket chain Tesco recalled several meals from their shelves because… HORSE MEAT
  • On February 13th, ‘Pork’ meatballs withdrawn by Waitrose made in Glasgow factory
  • On February 13th, a key figure in the adulteration of beef is named: Jan Fasen, who had already been sentenced to jail in January 2012 for selling horse meat as “halal beef” to Islamic shops in The Netherlands
  • February 14th, France, Horse, etc…
  • More February: all those boxes of beef lasagna bolognese? 100% horse, 0% beef 
  • February 14th, largest Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, withdraws horse lasagna.  Also, Plus Supermarket chain
  • February 15th Amsterdam steakhouse boss admits selling horse (when his menu stated he was selling beef and charging accordingly) for 63 years. Simultaneously, the most popular restaurant review site in The Netherlands, Iens, removes all criticism of the steakhouse’s deception, raising questions of corporate complicity in the widespread food fraud.
  • February 19th, Nestle recalls pasta from Spanish and Italian supermarkets due to more horse meat
  • February 25th, Ikea Recalls Meatballs in 23 European Countries After Detection of Horse Meat (and on March 5th, this “You thought the horse meatballs were bad… Ikea withdraws cakes over ‘faecal matter’)
  • On February 28th, in a “surprising twist in the horse meat scandal”, Iceland’s meat pies are found to contain… no meat at all.
  • On March 8th, a journalist uncovers more food fraud: Meat returned with green mould is cleaned, dried and resold in a Polish plant to make sausages and ham then exported to UK, Ireland, Germany and Lithuania. Also, horse meat

Bonus not horse related, on February 25th: those organic, free range eggs? Neither organic, nor free range, just your run of the mill “chixploitation”

Overwhelmed? You should be, because food is something that affects us all. We have a right to make informed choices in what we eat and what we feed our families. Those choices should not be left in the hands of corrupt businesses that feed us “soylenthorse” to increase their profits at the expense of our autonomy.

Meanwhile, the response from European authorities has ranged from outrage to downright disdain for consumers. David Heath, the UK’s Minister of State for Agriculture and Food advised people not to throw away frozen meat products in the wake of further revelations in the scandal. He also insisted consumers should carry on eating meat unless told otherwise. British Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said he would eat withdrawn meat products because “they pose no threat to human health“.

Two German politicians have proposed that horse meat products pulled from grocery store shelves due to false branding should be redistributed to the poor. Deutsche Welle reports:

Hartwig Fischer, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, made his point on Saturday to the daily Bild newspaper, saying he believed the horsemeat products should not be thrown away. He went so far as to be photographed and videoed eating a horsemeat lasagna by the newspaper. “This is good. I cannot tell the difference from other lasagnas,” Fischer said. [He] has suggested that the products screened and found to contain horsemeat be provided to aid organizations rather than destroyed.

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel chimed in to support Fischer’s proposal, pointing to the practicality of using the mislabeled products to help the needy. “More than 800 million people in the world are starving. Even in Germany, there are unfortunately people who are financially strapped, even for food … I think we cannot throw away good food here in Germany,” said Niebel.

(Incidentally, one third of American respondents to a survey suggested giving the horse meat to the poor as well)

For some politicians and many in the general public alike, in this brave new world, if you are poor, you should be stripped of your food consumption agency and fed the discarded products of dishonest corporations. We often speak of “choice” within feminism but what choice is left when you are hungry and politicians, the people who are supposed to have society’s best interests in mind, think the alternative to going hungry is to be fed foodstuffs deemed “unfit for human consumption”?

We, as consumers, are being alienated from our nutrition and that of our families. This isn’t about one’s preference for a certain type of meat. This is about being denied the legal protections of food safety. So far, the agencies and ministries in charge of this overview have failed us. I don’t know what’s next but of this I am certain: something is rotten in the European Union.

13 Comments

  1. Ailatan wrote:

    Great article!

    I was listening to some “experts” on radio 4 on this issue and one of them even said something along the lines of “this has happened with processed foods since women have decided to stop cooking for no reason in the 70′s” you can imagine how the other panelists jumped at him.
    The processed food industry is huge and is very much needed when people have less and less time to cook for hours on end.

    Having worked on the meat industry, I find astonishing this has not come to light sooner.

    I also think the British media was extremely upset because this was picked up in Irish labs and not through the British labs.

    Monday, March 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  2. I am not shocked that they are blaming women for this. Obesity? “women’s fault”, Malnutrition? “women’s fault”, Fraudulent food? “women’s fault”. Now contrast that with how the “foodie” and “gourmet” issues are coded masculine. Feeding at home remains a women’s issue while “leisure eating” and “taste” belong to men…

    Monday, March 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  3. facultades wrote:

    there is a chef in Norway who commented that this would not had happen if ppl just cook everything from scratch. He didn’t need to say women but the implication is there, because cooking for the family has mostly been done by women.

    Monday, March 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Julian Morrison wrote:

    Yeah, and one other part of this: the scandal stems from an EU law that (finally!) forced manufacturers to stop selling pink slime and pressure-washed “3mm mince” as meat. That’s what was in your value burgers before it was horse. But without that source of cheap “meat” for filler, the supermarkets sent their minions out looking for the cheapest meat in europe, no questions asked. And of course they found some dodgy dealer in France willing to sell them “beef” (guaranteed genuine, says so right here on this bit of paper with the ink still wet). So yeah, the poor are ALREADY being fed castoffs and meat trash. The only difference is that now, they left a DNA trail, and got caught.

    Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  5. Romie wrote:

    I can’t believe this. (I mean, obviously I believe you, but I’m stunned.) I have no problem with eating horse meat and would choose to eat horse meat, but I *do* have a problem with the idea that it’s ok to lie to me about the product I’m buying. Any product. I’d be angry to get chocolate milk in a container labeled strawberry milk, and I like both. A transaction is a contract. If you lied, I get my money back.

    There’s a similar scandal going on in Boston, where I live, where restaurants and grocery stores (but mostly restaurants) are widely mislabeling the fish they serve so that they can charge more for it. We haven’t seen the same kind of “give it to the poor!” or “come now it still tastes good!” handwaving from anyone but a few restaurants, who are despised for it. Presumably the difference in perception is linked to the idea that processed food is for poor people and restaurants are for rich people.

    Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  6. JaneO wrote:

    For me the problem is the safety of the meat: we could be eating meat from animals that have eaten contaminated food themselves, or have been subjected to all sorts of illegal medication. It is very worrying.

    Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  7. Nym wrote:

    @JaneO- Drugs were found in the horsemeat, an illegal doping agent called “Bute”.

    Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Alara Rogers wrote:

    If there’s full disclosure that the recalled meat product contains horse, I don’t see the problem with selling it at a steep discount to poor people, or anyone who wants to buy. I would eat horse without any emotional problems (and in fact possibly a bit of “nyah nyah” because I have a phobia of horses), but labeling it beef when it is horse is a *huge* problem.

    Horsemeat isn’t “unfit for human consumption”, inherently. (I’m pretty sure pink slime is.) So if the Germans and the British want to resell the recalled horse meat, *as long as it is labeled horse meat* I would have no problem with it.

    But it is wrong to pass shit off on people when they don’t know what it is. It would even be wrong to pass “higher quality” ingredients off as lower quality. If I had planned to eat horse meat, I wouldn’t want to discover I was really eating pork.

    And WTF this is about women not making food from scratch? If meat can be mislabeled when it’s sold to a food manufacturer, it can be mislabeled when sold at retail. If I go out and buy hamburger meat, I would have no way of knowing there is really horse in it. Do they also want women to raise their own cows and slaughter them personally, as well?

    Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  9. Elle wrote:

    @8 I believe that the issue is not only that the products were mislabeled, but also that the meat was not inspected. Or at least, it must not have been inspected very well. I don’t trust an inspection that didn’t distinguish “horse” from “cow” to have distinguished “rancid” from “fresh” or “contaminated with harmful bacteria” from “safe to eat.” This is part of the reason the foods were labelled unfit for consumption and why it is gross to suggest that those without means should be eating these products. At least, that is my understanding.

    Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  10. Bunny wrote:

    I’m poor enough that, if the supermarkets started selling safe, clearly labeled and regulated horse-meat as a cheap alternative to beef, I’d buy it! I’m not going to happily eat one sort of livestock and turn my nose up at another.

    But that is categorically NOT what the issue is, and I’m sick of the media portraying it like that.

    As you’ve said, we have a right to know what we’re eating, and protection of consumer rights needs to be treated seriously.

    But equally important is the fact that unregulated meat cannot be guaranteed safe for consumption. Livestock cannot be slaughtered for meat if they’ve recently been dosed with antibiotics, and livestock farmers have to keep detailed “passports” on every animal they raise so the meat industry can track health, food-safe animals. Illegally slaughtered and stealthily-sold meat is almost certainly going to be coming into the food chain without these documents and with no clear history regarding what drugs had been used on the animals, how recently, and what the health of those animals was like.

    People go absolutely NUTS when it turns out they might have non-organic in their organic, or GMO in their non-GMO. Why is it suddenly snobbish for the poorer people of Britain and Europe to not want unregulated horse in their beef?

    Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Nym wrote:

    @Elle – exactly. If donkey and horse are in “beef”, and halal meat products are testing positive for pork DNA, then what the hell else is in the food?

    I’ve already mentioned that powerful (and banned) drugs have been found too, so the food has been declared inherently unsafe as a matter of public protection.

    As someone who relies on prepared food, and cannot make food from scratch, I’m deeply shaken. My disability, poverty and gender combined have stripped me of most of my agency.

    Choosing what to eat is one of my only freedoms. This then, is a hard blow, especially as the prepared meals I usually buy have rocketed in price by 25%. That’s on top of my newly reduced income, thanks to my government’s persecution of disabled people. In real terms I’m paying twice as much to eat, so I’ve had to drop to five meals a week. It’s one punch after another.

    Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  12. Gina wrote:

    There was also an article in “Ms.” magazine recently about how the natural/local/organic/slow food movement is run by men and patronizingly presumes it is best when [women] stay at home to cook instead of buying premade food. Yes, processed food is not very healthy, but trying to recall a nonexistent, nostalgic past where Mama made wholesome home-cooked meals every day as the solution to these problems is ridiculous.

    P. S. I dunno how popular “Ms.” magazine is around here, since it’s an organ of mainstream white (cis) feminism, but I read it in a waiting room this week and the article jumped out at me and has been bugging me for several days.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  13. aumentou wrote:

    I have a new plan, which involves turning vegetarian.

    Ultimately if this problem puts people off meat enough to reduce consumption at all, then that’s a good thing. Our society encourages us to eat lots of meat, and the amount we’re consuming is not remotely sustainable. So there’s a silver lining there. Of course, that won’t be any comfort for people who’re suffering nasty health consequences from bad meat they were tricked into buying.

    Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink