“The flesh is the surface of the unknown.” – Victor Hugo
On January 15th, The Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced the discovery of horse meat tainted beef being produced, packed, and shipped from slaughterhouses in the UK and Ireland. ABP Food Group, the company deemed responsible, suspended production in its Co. Monaghan plant. As frozen beef products were pulled from the shelves of Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, and Dunnes stores across the country, the Irish public was formulating a response of their own.
Soon, horse-burger jokes were flooding the social networks. Breaching online limits, pubs, street corners, and especially grocery stores also bore witness to the onslaught of only-funny-cause-it’s-true wisecracks. A friend texted me this one:
Went to up to the cashier in Tesco this morning and asked what I should put on my burger. “Not much,” she said. “It’s lost its last three races.”
Outrage and righteous indignation were plentiful, but answers and accountability seemed in short supply. What else could we do but laugh?
In this case, however, mislabeling not only hid what’s actually for dinner, but the full story behind one consequence of the Great Recession.
Supply and No Demand
During the years of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland had been a longstanding and renowned contributor of thoroughbred show and race horses. However, in the first few years of the economic downturn, the country attracted the attention of animal rights groups as horses were abandoned in droves by their cash-strapped owners. The market was flooded and an animal welfare crisis ensued. “We really don’t know how bad this is going to get,” said Conor Dowling, of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA). “The price has fallen so much that anyone can get a horse. They are being exchanged for old mobile phones.”
This unprecedented democratization of horse ownership was so widespread that it was even lampooned in Irish popular music.
In 2010, the ISPCA said that 20,000 horses had been abandoned or destroyed since the beginning of the crisis. The government and animal rights groups were kept busy rounding up horses from their negligent owners.
A study conducted later in 2012 by Professor Des Leadon of the Irish Equine Centre stated that “The associated debts and ongoing maintenance costs mean that there is literally no alternative to slaughter in many cases” (the full study can be found here). It found that the number of horses slaughtered in Ireland rose from 783 in 2005 to 7,296 in 2010. In 2011 alone, the count was 12,386. The first two months of 2012, when the study was concluded, saw 2,186 horses slaughtered.
Leadon had meant to quell the international rumor mill surrounding the animal welfare crisis, but instead his work provided the numbers to confirm much of the world’s grimmest speculation.
While “[The] report pointed out that the number of horses slaughtered in Ireland had increased concurrently with Government debt levels,” (Irish Independent) the problem was not limited to Ireland. The UK has seen similar numbers of unwanted horses slaughtered and in the US the numbers are over 100,000.
From the Stable to the Table
The majority of the horses slaughtered did not have microchip “passports” which verify that they have never been injected with phenylbutazone – an anti-inflammatory drug known to cause adverse reactions in humans. Regulations dictate that horses without passports cannot be sent to commercial slaughterhouses and are therefore not fit for human consumption. Meanwhile horse meat testing positive for traces of the drug was recently sent to France from the UK and is likely to have entered the food chain. But eating contaminated horse is another issue. Consumers can at least rest assured that the meat they have unknowingly eaten was almost certainly safe. The story does show, however, an otherwise functioning screening system that is perhaps experiencing a degree of strain under extremely high volumes of product.
There are a lot of accusations flying around, but wastefulness is certainly not one of them. Without a demand large enough to meet the supply of horse, it appears that some people may have gotten creative. It is not only the products that have been mislabeled but their producers as well.
Beyond the violation of consumer trust and safety, mislabeling adds injury to insult through a form of price gouging as well. It can be argued that a frozen hamburger is only that cheap because it contains horse meat. However, if it was labeled as such, the decreased demand and lower production cost would make it even cheaper. Passing off horse meat as beef makes it more profitable. Companies can reduce costs while keeping prices level.
It remains to be seen if any improvement in consumer protection will follow, but the severe damage to companies’ reputations is already spurring them into action. Perhaps the humble horse-burger jokes have played a part in this. Unfortunately, at this point, it is probably too little too late; the surplus of horses left by the recession has likely already been processed if not consumed.
Demand and No Supply
On the other side of the Atlantic, a very different story about mislabeled products is unfolding. A non-profit ocean protection group called, Oceana, recently conducted a study that uncovered rampant mislabeling of tuna and red snapper in grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi dens.
The numbers are startling. 59% of “tuna” was found to be mislabeled in restaurants and grocery stores in the US. In sushi restaurants, it jumps to 74%. So, what is it? The most common substitute found for “white tuna” (84%) was actually a fish called escolar. Escolar is known to contain naturally occurring toxins that can cause “oily anal leakage” in humans – a symptom that harkens back to American’s equally unwelcome encounter with Olestra in the late nineties.
The instances of mislabeled tuna were only exceeded in samples of red snapper, with 87% being replaced by several different species.
The reason behind this widespread practice is the exact opposite of the horse meat scandal. Instead of too much of something people don’t want, there is simply too little to keep up with the demand.
According the World Wildlife Foundation, tuna species are some of the most commercially valuable fish in the sea. Overfishing has brought some varieties to the point of near extinction. “If you’ve ever wondered why the sushi in the display case is so affordable, given the dire state of the world’s tuna supply, well, now you know,” says Christopher Mims of The Atlantic.
What’s in a Label?
In a perfect world, every label would tell the truth. But if that were the case, we would only see how imperfect the world really is. Perhaps a new and unusually affordable frozen dinner option would give today’s thrifty shopper pause, confronting them with yet another lingering reminder of the times. The exorbitant price of popular fish would shutter thousands of businesses and make going out for sushi cost prohibitive to a vast majority.
We take it for granted that foods tend to increase in abundance or at least stay on the shelves. It is difficult to think of any product in modern times that has decreased in availability to the point of being beyond the reach of the average consumer. Imagine the lowly tuna fish sandwich that we all remember carrying to school in a lunch box turning into an exclusive delicacy.
Mislabeling keeps many difficult realities hidden beneath a veneer of normalcy. Normal economy, normal prices, normal fish stocks. It is a matter of common sense to demand to know what you are eating. But the wrong label can hide much more than just what something is. We should also be prepared to accept the very different world that will appear along with the correct label.