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Lessons from Britain's 'Horsemeat Scandal': The Tip of a Very Ugly Iceberg

Monday, 8 April 2013  | Matthew Barton

At time of writing, the horsemeat scandal (as it’s being called by Britain’s mainstream press) is continuing to snowball, as more and more supposedly trusted retailers are being found to have sold beef products containing horsemeat. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, the Co-Op, Iceland, Aldi, Morrison’s, BirdsEye, Nestlé and IKEA are among the culprits on the retail side: many, however, are attempting to shift culpability onto the foreign butchers and meat sellers who supplied the ‘tainted’ beef, even when – as was the case for the Romanian slaughterhouse which sold horsemeat to French company Spanghero – the horsemeat was sold honestly and only relabelled by the meat processors.

Indeed, if one was unfortunate enough to rely solely on media coverage of the horsemeat scandal (including their coverage of the public response), one could be forgiven for thinking that there are three important angles to the controversy:

  1. The meat processors, supermarkets, and other retailers involved broke the law.
  2. Foreign slaughterhouses broke the law, duping British companies in the process.
  3. Killing and eating horses is in some tangible way less moral than killing and eating cows.

Points 1 and 2 are valid, and worth serious discussion and reflection as important questions of business ethics. The third point, that killing a horse is somehow worse than killing a cow, stands as an erroneous and culturally-determined illustration of the real issues at the heart of the horsemeat offences:

  1. The system of food production is so removed from everyday life in the so-called ‘developed world’ that unless we buy our food from independent local retailers (and not necessarily even then) we have no idea of how our food came to be.
  2. The food industry (more accurately, its most influential players) profits from this invisibility, and from our widespread and wilful ignorance about it.
  3. This invisibility and wilful ignorance extends to leaving massive assumptions unquestioned – including the assumption that it’s worse to kill a horse than a cow; and the idea that we need to eat meat at all, let alone daily.

Widespread public contentment with knowing next to nothing about food production is frustrating for those concerned with the deep corruption and deleterious consequences of the system as it is now. In a materialist culture which idolises individualism, to the extent that the wider impact of our choices is obscured or ignored, this contented ignorance is not surprising. I am, however, deeply surprised and disturbed at the number of Christians – disciples and worshippers of a God who created, loves, and will redeem all creation – who are happy to leave the food system’s invisibility unchallenged. Churches are much more comfortable proclaiming on sexuality and warfare than they are on food. And yet, as central as the ethical issues surrounding sex and violence are, food is more intimately a part of our lives than either of these. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so eat every day. Most of us eat multiple times a day, and plenty of us (this writer included) eat more than we need to.

The food production network is an ecosystem of sorts, a network which exists within but touches on all parts of the grand ecosystem called creation. From retailers to farmers to drivers to cooks to retailers again; to the animals farmed, used in farming, or indirectly killed through the use of pesticides and threshers; to the environment itself, from deforestation for grazing land, to the methane output from unnaturally high concentrations of cattle, to the monumental environmental cost of flying steaks around the world, and so on and so on. The food system affects all creation, a network of anti-relationship which should raise serious critical questions in any church concerned to live out the relational love we see in God’s being and becoming Incarnate for us.

The horsemeat debacle is a small and local example of a systemic problem – the food system’s invisibility makes those who steward it unaccountable. It is the tip of a very ugly iceberg, one visible symptom of systemic corruption which will soon again sink below the surface unless people start to ask the right questions. Environmental questions, and concern for all the humans involved in the production and consumption of meat, are key here. But so too are questions about the welfare of the animals who suffer horrendously in a system we allow to remain unaccountable.

An appropriately critical response to the food system does not require everyone to go vegetarian. Given the environmental, animal, and human damage wrought by the system – the human damage arising largely from the monumental caloric inefficiency of cattle farming, and unscrupulous land grabs and deforestation by multinationals the world over – going vegetarian or vegan is certainly laudable (although by no means a perfect diet in its own right). But it is the demand for once, twice, or thrice-daily meat that highlights how complicit we as a public are with the system: the rate of production needed to satisfy Western appetites for animal flesh is simply impracticable without the perverse reality of the factory farm.

As troubling as it is, however, over-consumption of meat is not the foundational problem. That is the invisibility of the system and its anti-relational, profit-driven mechanisms; the invisibility we’re happy to tolerate; the invisibility that meant the horsemeat scandal could happen, that means companies which treat living animals like meat before they’re even dead can put out promotional material featuring happy, healthy cows in a big green field (or, like most McDonald’s adverts, showing happy, healthy humans eating profoundly unhealthy food). The invisibility, and our tolerance of it, are the problems.

Every time we, as Christians, interact with the world in any meaningful way, we make a theological statement, and witness to the work of Christ and the Spirit in our lives. This includes all purchasing choices, including food purchases. When we make a food choice, we proclaim to the world, ‘This food, and the processes and relationships behind it, are an appropriate way to relate to creation’. We can only fulfil our responsibilities as stewards of creation and disciples of Christ if, when we make this statement, we mean it. We can only mean it if we are at least attempting to shed light on the obfuscating darkness the industry cultivates. And we can only do this by taking it seriously – and that means asking ourselves, and others, serious, reflexive, and prayerful questions.

This article was originally published (here) on the KLICE website and is reproduced by permission. Thanks to editor Andrew Goddard.

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