For the past month, UK grocery stores have been pulling beef products containing up to 100 percent horsemeat off shelves. Criminal investigations have determined that highly profitable Polish and Italian mob operations substituted cheaper alternatives for beef.
According to BBC, hippophagy (literally, horse-eating) initially emerged in response to economic pressures. The practice “spread in Europe in the 19th Century, after famines caused several governments to license horse butcheries.” The connotation has held — hence the expression “so hungry I could eat a horse.”
Horsemeat that contains traces of the drug phenylbutazone is banned for human consumption, but government officials have yet to declare that the recalled products are a health risk. The outrage has more to do with deceptive practices that cheat consumers out of money and violate their rights to make religious and ethical food choices.
Mislabeling of food products is rampant, but most are cases of dishonest marketing of a product’s attributes (such as labeling California olive oil as imported from Italy), rather than gross misrepresentation of a product. In the case of UK beef, consumers thought they were eating cow meat when they were actually eating a mixture of meats or a different meat altogether. Similarly, a 2011 Boston Globe investigation found that 48 percent of fish sold in Massachusetts were a cheaper species being passed off as a more lucrative one.
Numerous economic and ecological costs stem from mislabeling. Those who order Atlantic cod because it is fresher and supports local and sustainable business practices would balk at the news that they’re likely eating Pacific cod. When tilapia is consistently listed on menus as red snapper, market exposure conveys to consumers that red snapper is abundant when it is actually overfished. Conversely, when endangered species are used as substitutes and not listed on menus, even educated consumers cannot avoid contributing to their overfishing. In exploiting people’s willingness to shell out for locally or sustainably harvested options, fishmongers and restaurateurs thwart efforts to protect fish stocks through public education.
The other troubling ethical concern is religiously forbidden meats being used as substitutes. The UK investigations uncovered that halal meat from the distributor, 3663, contained traces of pig DNA. A spokesperson said that the products had been distributed only to prisons, which is far from reassuring since prisoners have none of the choices available to the public.
Religion also came up in the “Doppelgängers” episode of This American Life, which vetted the possibility of bung, or pig rectum, being a stand in for calamari. A taste test proved that the switch is all too plausible. Aside from the ick factor, the segment touches on the difficulty of regulating food that doesn’t pose an immediate safety or sanitation risk. If you’re like me though, you instinctually feel that pork rectum should be a sanitation concern.
Alas, even if the Food and Drug Administration wanted to go hunting for bung that’s served up as squid, its regulatory capability has been hampered by budget cuts. The UK Food Standards Agency is in a similar bind, and the environment secretary has indicated that grocers should pick up the tab for food testing. A crackdown on mislabeling is needed, but consumers, especially the ones buying cheap beef products, will only be further punished should grocers pass on those costs to them.
The problem with horsemeat, escolar and bung isn’t that they’re unfit for human consumption. It’s that some individuals can afford truly local and ethical options and should be able to trust that they’re getting the goods they paid for. Other individuals — for religious, ethical or otherwise personal reasons — cannot afford to eat false substitutes but are forced to unwittingly. In either case, that decision should not be plucked away by swindlers looking to profit from bait-and-switch schemes.
Jing Jin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Ringing True appears alternate Mondays this semester.