Friday, February 22, 2013

Horsing around with our food

It is now for more than a month that we read about the horse meat scandal in Europe – or the ‘2013 meat adulteration scandal’, as it is referred to on its own Wikipedia page. Today we learned that the scope of the issue is by no means just linked to some obscure Romanian supplier. High street brands such as Nestlé and Birds Eye are now implicated and there is little hope that this will die down any time soon.

Scandals around food, and in particular meat production, are anything but new. The seminal event here is still the BSE scandal nearly two decades ago. But there are some remarkable differences with this latest one.

Initially, it is worth noting that the BSE scandal was around meat that was potentially harmful; BSE infected meat can cause Creutzfeld-Jakob disease which until 2009 has killed 166 in the UK (the then centre of the epidemic). Horsemeat as such is not harmful to health (though some contaminants have been discovered from medication horses were given to enhance performance, as most of the horsemeat seems to come from animals initially not destined to enter the food chain). In some countries horsemeat is considered a perfectly delicious and healthy (poor man’s) food staple.

The key problem is that we eat food that we don’t understand anymore. We buy a ‘Beef Lasagne’, but it is in fact a ‘Horse Lasagne’ (to varying degrees).

It is the breach of trust that upsets people. And it unveils another, much larger issue. The way we eat has been silently, but irreversibly, taken out of our control. Europe is hit with this scandal just in the midst of wider problems. The Euro crisis, and the fiscal problems of many European countries have created a scenario where people suddenly feel their lives are exposed to forces which are beyond their control. The horse meat scandal just adds to that fear, and it also points to one pivotal actor, namely the multinational food company that controls the supply of food.
“The 10 largest companies now control more than 15 per cent of all food sales – three quarters of which are made up of highly processed foods such as frozen pizza, burgers, biscuits and fizzy drinks.
This quote from The Independent newspaper highlights the core issue. The way we eat is now largely controlled by private corporations. The horse meat scandal just highlights the fact that private, profit oriented actors impact our lives beyond any individual control.

From a CSR perspective one could argue that the food industry has been overlooked for quite some time. Yes there were a number of movies about the topic, most notably ‘Supersize Me’, ‘Fast Food Nation’ and Food Inc.. A big issue has been obesity and how food companies contribute to this epidemic. But by and large, it were oil companies, tobacco companies or banks, which have been targeted recently here.

There are some interesting studies out – conspicuously authored by scholars in medical schools. Rob Moodie of Melbourne University or Kellie Brownell of Yale have put forward a very powerful argument: that food companies pursue exactly the same strategy as tobacco companies did three decades ago.

This stuff is worth noting – without going into too much detail in this blog. Especially Brownell in his analysis does not cast a very favorable light on CSR – as practiced by these companies. There is ample ground to argue that the food industry – even without considering the ongoing horse meat scandal – is one of the most irresponsible industries currently around. The reason is not that they struggle with the usual problems of supply chain issues (such as slavery in cocoa supply) or advertising or – you name it.

Food companies shape the way we live. In particular, it is conspicuous that the current scandal evolves around meat. It is just a plain fact that today we consume too much of it. You do not need to be a vegetarian or vegan to say this. Meat is a precious commodity, providing pivotal nutrients to humans, based on the death of other sentient beings. Traditionally, humans have always been aware of this special status of meat consumption. Just think of the rituals around meat consumption in many of the world religions – be it Judaism with its sacrificial cults or Islam with it's stipulation of ‘Halal’ rules. And even in a secular world some of these traditions have survived until today. I am writing this blog from Istanbul, where my local butcher has a webcam to the farm where the meat is sourced up on a screen in the shop. You cannot buy minced meat (the core issue of the horse meat scandal) in most Turkish butcheries; you have to pick a piece of meat in the counter and than it gets minced in front of your eyes – so no doubt about what you are eating. And: meat is expensive in Turkey. No $2 Lasagne here...

Which points to the general issue. Our food is no longer provided by local butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers or bakeries. We buy it from multinational brands. The way they do their job is one problem. This is what the current scandal is about. The other problem though is why we buy ready made meals, processed food, trans-fat infested snacks in the first place. It is an element of our lifestyle, where only little time is available for us to actually cook our own food.

Food production is the next big CSR issue. We need more research, more critical investigation, more clout behind this issue.
Photo by Gene Hunt, reproduced under the Creative Commons license.


  1. I can still recall the feeling when I bir the very first "multinational banana". It was a Dole.
    You see, we have very delicious local Anamur bananas here in Turkey.. but they are really small.. you can never have enough.
    And then 20 years ago, when I first saw these imported supersize bananas, I thought, "wow, five minutes of banana, great".

    But then I bite, and big disappointment strikes. Felt like eating chalk.

    Thats pretty much the same for all sorts of fruits and vegetables in Europe. When the taste is gone, and the ones who knew how a juicy tomato feels like die, younger generations can't know how it was before.

  2. Turgut,
    that is exactly the point - far beyound questionalble practices (such as using ingredients not mentioned on the label) food companies shape your lifestyle and choices. Check this article in today's New York Times:

  3. Being a butcher's daughter, I could not agree more!

    I would like to add two things:

    First, recent research on attitudes and social norms indicates that especially fast-food marketing encourages consumers to perceive fast-food consumption as normal, socially accepted and normative. Consumers perceive price promotions, for example, as a signal that the promoted products are popular and frequently purchased by others. Similarly, large portion sizes are perceived as normal and create the “social pressure” for consumers to finish their plates. Wansink, Painter, & North did an interesting experiment in which they showed that participants who ate out of a self-refilling soup bowl consumed over 70% more compared to a control group with a normal soup bowl, and they underestimated the amount of calories they consumed. The food industry has influenced our lifestyle and food habits so much, that we are disappointed if we do not find a gigantic portion on our plate. Quantity appears to count more than quality.

    Second, Michael Moss argued in the NYT article and in his book that junk food can be addictive (watch out for potato chips) and that food scientists “design” our food in such a way as to support our natural addiction for sugar, salt, and fat. This raises the question of responsibility for our global obesity epidemic. Many argue it is the consumer as the consumer decides what to eat or not to eat. However, after reading Moss’ book, I am wondering whether it is not the food industry’s responsibility. And, what about the state?

    Indeed, more research is needed to investigate the lines of responsibility for obesity.

  4. Judith,
    thanks for adding these aspects. Especially the NYT piece you mentioned was just amazing. Here is the link for our readers:

    But i think the article also showed why it is so tricky to properly research this: even the 'whistleblowers' had extreme restriction to use their knowledge, as these companies are so litigious and cagy. It all reminds me of some communist state in the 1970s... It is difficult to gain access to what is really going on.


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