We whip the blame back and forth

We’ve all forgotten about horsemeat. The so-called ‘scandal’ has subsided. It’s off the agenda, replaced with lots of new global disasters (think nuclear annihilation) and domestic issues (think welfare reform). It begs the question: was this really a food crisis? Or was it just a media panic?

In January, the Irish Food Standards Agency found horse DNA in our beef burgers. Since then, there has been an uproar in the media about a ‘scandal’ surrounding our food: the Guardian reports that it has prompted food hygiene fears; the Daily Mail argues that the scandal is a ‘brutal warning’ to British shoppers; and the Daily Telegraph resorts to blaming Europe. Indeed, this idea of ‘the blame’ is intriguing. Blame consists of two elements: (i) the consequence of a perceived harm or loss that could have been avoided and (ii) a perceived responsibility or agency for the harm or loss. [1] Quite obviously, shoppers feel wronged because they have been eating horsemeat when they should not have. This raises the question of who is duly responsible for the deception. The blame has been hurled at many: the FSA, government departments, food labels, supermarkets, cheap food, the poor, ‘the system’, consumer behaviour, farmers, the Europeans, and every individual that’s ever eaten meat. Let’s explore.

The leaders in our play are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), experts and political leaders. They have blamed the ‘complexity’ of the food processing system, which involved abattoirs in Romania, factories in Luxembourg, meat processors in France, and traders in the Netherlands (before arriving in the UK). For a neat summary, see the BBC’s summary here. The FSA has, so far, mainly used a presentational strategy to minimise damage – drawing a line under the scandal and opening up a UK-wide investigation. However, experts have also used an agency strategy to shift blame onto ‘the system’: the complexity of the food processing system, the nature of regulatory governance, and the failure of the FSA to properly regulate meat. [2] One former food auditor has even blamed supermarkets for their ‘massive failure’ to regulate their own products.

Enter our middle-managers: the distributors of our food, popularly known as supermarkets. Food retailers have swiftly called for tighter regulation to rebuke the comments made by the aforementioned food expert. Tesco, for instance, promises to buy more from British farmers and ensure that as many products as possible are sourced from British soil. Meanwhile, Asda warns that this scandal could mean higher prices to ensure that the regulatory system works better. Supermarkets have opted for a policy strategy to prevent themselves from being blamed for the scandal. This is, perhaps tellingly, a strange twist in our blame game: why do supermarkets feel the need to undergo a damage-limitation exercise if they have done nothing wrong and put the blame squarely on ‘the system’?

This ‘system’ is also known as the meat industry. Some newspapers (here and here) have attempted to blame the farmers and abattoirs of Eastern Europe for the crisis. The Romanians, where the horsemeat apparently came from, have denied any wrongdoing. Of course, they do sell horsemeat – it’s just that they have been sensible enough to label it as such. The Romanians are of course very happy to eat correctly labelled horsemeat. This has caused a bit of a stir – are we just being snobbish about eating horsemeat? Is it a poor man’s food? The German development minister has proclaimed that we should give our beef products ‘tainted’ with horsemeat to the poor because ‘We can’t just throw away good food’. Outrageous, of course, but some have argued that the reason we have horsemeat in our food at all is because cash-strapped local councils and poor people can’t afford ‘real’ meat, and so supermarkets are just supplying our demand for cheap food. And so the horsemeat scandal has landed squarely back in traditional British political discourse: this is all about British identity and our obsession with class.

So where are we now? Apparently, we’re turning vegetarian. But aside from that, the outcry of a couple of months ago has not caused a sustained, existential dilemma for the public. At the end of the day, this was not a health crisis, nor is horsemeat necessarily a bad choice for cooking. Perhaps this has just been regulatory failure on a transnational scale. Was this so-called ‘scandal’ just a labelling issue all along? Or is it possible to extrapolate anything more from the headlines?

The tempting prospect is to reply with: ‘neigh’. But that would be horsing around, and doesn’t really delve into the mane issue. The unbridled plethora of news articles and television reports implies that our food industry has been problematised. The horsemeat scandal has raised two questions: ‘who gets what?’ and ‘what should we expect from our food?’. It has raised these two questions precisely because it is not illegal to slaughter, serve or eat horsemeat. This is a cultural and moral issue about our meat consumption. Both questions return us to the critical issue of consumption and the way in which we are willing to shut our eyes and ears to animal welfare and the pleasures of the palate. Our willingness to consume masses of meat – regardless of what kind – has taken its toll on the environment: pesticides and fertilisers have affected local ecosystems, growth hormones have affected food chains, and ranches are destroying forests and depleting water supplies. The price we pay for our food does not reflect its costs – especially not on natural resources, climate and ecosystems. This means that cheap meat continues to stimulate demand and inculcates the belief that to eat meat three times a day is without consequences. In agricultural societies, per capita consumption of meat was rarely above 10 kilograms. By 1950, this has risen to 17 kilograms. And today, it is over 40 kilograms. [3] The public demand meat in most of its dishes, and treats ‘cheap meat’ as a right. Does this imply that the blame ultimately lies with public expectations of food? Was the horsemeat scandal ultimately caused by the public? Perhaps. As Nikolai Gogol once remarked: ‘It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry’. [4]

So, to recap: we’ve seen producers blaming supermarkets, the FSA blaming the ‘system’, economists blaming supply and demand, newspapers blaming Europe, supermarkets blaming the FSA, vegetarians blaming the meat-eaters, and – from today – me blaming you. Have we solved some great crisis here? Or just whipped some blame back and forth?

mg

[1] C. Hood, The Blame Game, Princeton: PUP, pp.6-7.

[2] HC 946 (2013) Contamination of Beef Products, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 (additional written evidence), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, London: HMSO. Available here.

[3] P. Dauvergne (2008) The Shadows of Consumption, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.135-67.

[4] Nikai Gogol, The Inspector General.