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.