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COLUMN - Horsemeat hysteria

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 13 Feb 2013 00:24 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Jack Shafer

Feb 12 (Reuters) - Disgust, the gag reflex and flights to the vomitorium greeted this week's news that horse flesh had breached the beef wall to contaminate burgers and frozen beef meals (lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd's pie, meatballs) all over Europe. Some of the "beef" products contained 100 percent horsemeat, and early forensic tests hinted that the contamination might go back as far as August 2012.

Both the British government and the European Union called for "horsemeat summits" to investigate the food scandal, with British officials surmising that a criminal conspiracy would be found responsible for adulterating beef products with cheaper horse. But for all the horsemeat hysteria recorded and amplified by the press, "no risk to consumer health" was posed by the products, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported. The injuries from eating horsemeat were not physical, they were psychological, and where they were not psychological they were anthropological, or else simply nonexistent. According to the Ireland health authority, every beef-and-horse burger it analyzed tested negative for phenylbutazone, a common horse medicine that's banned from the food chain.

Horsemeat - as those who have sampled its pleasures will attest - should not be feared. Looked at rationally, it's merely the other, other red meat, as our French cousins are forever reminding us. It's a domesticated and hooved grass and grain eater with a tail, big eyes and a tannable hide, just like the cattle that most of us consume. That's not to suggest that the folks who were sold horse burgers when they paid for beef burgers have no right to gripe. They were defrauded and deserve refunds, a few pennies' worth of damages and the satisfaction of seeing the defrauders (if the contamination was deliberate) sent to jail. But that's about it.

Explaining the outrage and media storm over the horsemeat scandal will send many journalists to their lexicons to retrieve the word "taboo" to decode the current panic. But I don't think "taboo" adequately describes the aversion of some people and some cultures to a food that is so similar to one they eat several times a day - and which most of them, as the current scandal illustrates, can't tell from the real thing when smothered in sauce or grilled for a sandwich. "Food Taboos: Their Origins and Purposes," a 2009 article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine by Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow, notes that most human cultures avoid harvestable or easily slaughtered edible items all the time. The Ache people of the Paraguayan jungle limit themselves to only 50 of the several hundred animal species in their habitat, and only 40 of the available plants, fruits and insects. "Ninety-eight percent of the calories in the diet of the Ache are supplied by only 17 different food sources," Meyer-Rochow writes.

Avoidance of a potential food can turn into a taboo, especially when enforced by a group's religious, spiritual or cultural rules. Observant Jews, Muslims and Hindus, as well as Catholics guided by Lent, will eschew certain foods in accordance with their dietary laws and beliefs. Some of these laws can be linked to the protection of human health, resource management and group cohesion, as Meyer-Rochow notes. The suppression of horse eating in the West can be blamed on Pope Gregory III who, in 723, called the practice "a "filthy and abominable custom" and associated it with pagan practices. Back then, horse eaters could be punished with a penance of four years on bread and water.

What defies simple cultural explanation is why so many modern French, middle Europeans, Latin American, Chinese or Japanese citizens enjoy nothing better than a nice cut of horsemeat now and again, while a handful of others - those in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States and English Canada-generally oppose its consumption. It's not enough to say that we relate to our horses the way we relate to our pets (or "animal companions," as some like to call them) from the canine and feline families. I doubt that many adults who don't ride horses enjoy any such emotional attachment to them. Our avoidance seems to be rooted in custom, just outside of cultural or religious explanation, the way our nose-blowing and spitting norms differ from those of the Chinese. Because we don't generally eat horsemeat, the thought of eating horsemeat repulses us.

If you live outside an agricultural market where horses are slaughtered and processed, expect more horsemeat repulsion. Food regulators in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere discovered horsemeat in the beef food chain not because they have French noses but because they now have at their disposal the incredibly powerful, cheap and speedy technology known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) that can help detect minute bits of alien DNA. As recently as two decades ago commercial PCR didn't exist, and identifying horse inside a purported beef sample likely would have been a long and arduous process. If food fraudsters were horsing around back then - and who is to say they weren't? - you could have easily eaten some filly without knowing it.

Now, with PCR, we've got a better take on what we're eating. Last summer a conservation group conducted DNA analysis of 150 samples of fresh seafood from 81 establishments in New York City and found that 39 percent of them were mislabeled. Those findings - that some customers were ordering red snapper but were fraudulently served lowly tilapia - didn't cause as much of a stir as the horse-beef scandal because no fish eater (at least none I know of) possesses a religious or cultural objection to tilapia. If they avoid tilapia, they do it for taste or status reasons, so being swindled into eating cheap fish is only an embarrassment.

For other diners, I predict that PCR will herald a disturbing food reckoning. You have no idea how appalled you're going to be when you finally discover the forbidden foods you've been eating. Put your bib on and saddle up!

(Jack Shafer)

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