Horsemeat and the joke of British ‘food standards’

And what would you like on that burger? Relish, mustard ... a saddle?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Since the discovery of horsemeat in some processed meat products, the jokes have come thick and fast, almost to the point of exhaustion, but this issue still has an important aspect that needs to be discussed. Although many words have been written and spoken on the subject in Britain’s mainstream media – some of them hysterical, many of them xenophobic, and a few of them casually dismissive of the whole issue – very few have turned their attention to the issue: why is horsemeat turning up in products labelled as beef?

When the story first broke, we were informed that a trace of horse DNA had been found in some processed beef products, but within a few days reports were coming in of up to 70 percent and even one of 100 percent adulteration of meat that had been labelled as ‘beef’ but had turned out to be mostly (or even wholly) horsemeat. These examples were found in both popular brand-named and supermarket own-brand products, and had led to many of the exposed products being recalled.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is supposed to protect our food from adulteration, at first directed the British press towards foreign abattoirs, but later admitted that contamination of one species by another could occur wherever a meat processing or cutting plant is dealing with more than one species. Catherine Brown, chief executive of the FSA, said: “Even with thorough cleaning and good hygienic practice, traces of DNA of one species can carry over to other products.”

The FSA is even setting up consumer forums to ascertain what level of contamination would be acceptable to the public, and whether, if people wanted totally uncontaminated meat, they would be prepared to pay the extra costs involved in separating and constantly testing meat products.

Of course, even if we are forced by ‘costs’ to accept a certain level of contamination of our meat (the FSA are talking of a figure of 1 percent or less), the reality of the small amount of cross-contamination that happens despite ‘thorough cleaning and good hygienic practice’ goes no way to explaining the massive amounts of horsemeat found in some meat products labelled as beef.

According to Ms Brown, the FSA conducted an online consumer survey as part of their preparations for the ‘citizens’ forums’. She revealed that about half the consumers surveyed said they will now purchase less processed meat and fewer ready meals.

“The main reason for this was stated as a general lack of trust – 67 percent of people gave us that reason – much more than the 35 percent who said they didn’t want to eat horsemeat. And those general concerns have now been reflected in sales figures,” she said.

‘We’re all in it together’

Ms Brown also complained that the FSA had been “irritated” by suggestions it had been caught asleep on the job by the horsemeat scandal. “If we missed something, so did our counterparts in every [EU] member state, and every food business in the UK and Europe.”

Quite, Ms Brown, and there is a very good reason why everyone has been ‘missing’ these things. The adulteration of food is very profitable and allows one retailer to undercut another in the drive to capture market share. It can have been no secret in the industry that the extremely cheap pies and burgers etc found in many supermarkets could not even have been mass-produced as labelled at the price that was being asked and still turn a profit.

The supermarkets drive down the price of the producers and ask no, or very few, questions about quality or supervision. Put simply: the price is right. This food is for the poorest sections of the working classes, and most of those involved in making and selling it do not expect to be eating it themselves. But even food of much higher price and avowed ‘quality’ is still prone to adulteration in the quest for maximum profit.

Marx’s daily bread

The adulteration of food to increase profitability is hardly a new phenomenon. As Marx pointed long ago:

The incredible adulteration of bread, especially in London, was first revealed by the House of Commons Committee ‘on the adulteration of articles of food’ (1855-56), and Dr Hassall’s work, ‘Adulterations detected’. The consequence of these revelations was the Act of 6 August 1860, ‘for preventing the adulteration of articles of food and drink’, an inoperative law, as it naturally shows the tenderest consideration for every free-trader who determines by the buying or selling of adulterated commodities ‘to turn an honest penny’.

The Committee itself formulated more or less naïvely its conviction that free trade meant essentially trade with adulterated, or as the English ingeniously put it, ‘sophisticated’ goods … Englishmen, always well up in the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients …

The men employed by the underselling masters (who sell their bread under the ‘full price’, and who, as already pointed out, comprise three-fourths of the London bakers) have not only to work on the average longer hours, but their work is almost entirely confined to the bakehouse … Even the bourgeois intellect understands the position of the ‘underselling’ masters. ‘The unpaid labour of the men was made the source whereby the competition was carried on.’ And the ‘full-priced’ baker denounces his underselling competitors to the Commission of Inquiry as thieves of foreign labour and adulterators.

‘They only exist now by first defrauding the public, and next getting 18 hours’ work out of their men for 12 hours’ wages.’

The adulteration of bread and the formation of a class of bakers that sells the bread below the full price, date from the beginning of the 18th century, from the time when the corporate character of the trade was lost, and the capitalist, in the form of the miller or flour-factor, rises behind the nominal master baker.[sup] [/sup]Thus was laid the foundation of capitalistic production in this trade, of the unlimited extension of the working-day and of night-labour, although the latter only since 1824 gained a serious footing, even in London.” (Capital, Vol 1, c10, s3, 1867)

Regarding the case of the present-day meat industry, there are many who have tried to dismiss the whole horsemeat scandal as being nothing more than a storm in a teacup – unnecessary hysteria by a hypocritical public that is culturally attuned to eating cows but not to eating horses. But this neatly sidesteps the main issues, which are of adulteration and supervision.

What the horsemeat scandal has made crystal clear is that the imperatives of capitalism have not changed one iota since Victorian workers were being forced to ingest alum and copper in their bread, iron sulphate in their tea, strychnine in their beer and lead in their confectionery (among other nasty poisons). If producers can get away with it, they will lower costs by putting in thickeners, colorants and any other cheap substance that will give the effect of lovely, healthy food, without them having to go to the expense of consistently producing it. Chuck in a load of salt and sugar to cover the taste and you have lots of easy-to-produce, moreish products that will sell cheap and give the illusion of nutrition to the unwitting consumer.

So if the capitalist drive to lower standards and cut corners remains, why has there been so much shock at the horsemeat scandal? Precisely because it has proved to all those who had trusted in the state to take care of their interests that it has been doing no such thing! For all the vaunted ‘high standards’ of today’s food industry, it is now perfectly obvious that if horsemeat can be consistently passed off as beef without the authorities noticing, then any number of other adulterations must also be taking place.

Essentially, we have no idea what we are eating or what kind of harmful substances may be building up in our bodies as a result.

There is already widespread debate about the things that are permitted to be done to our food (the widespread use of low-grade animal feed, antibiotics and steroids etc in the production of meat, for example), but this concern goes up another level again when we consider that the meat we are actually eating has not even been produced to even these unacceptably low standards!

Virtually anything can be pumped into horses bound for the plough, or for pulling carts or riding. How are we to know what undocumented toxins may be present in the carcasses of animals that are ending up in our ‘beef burgers’ and lasagnes?

Wherever we look in capitalist society, we can see that only the pursuit of maximum profit is of any interest to the ruling class and its agents. If we want everyone in our society to have access to food that is wholesome and healthy (as opposed to it being a consumer choice available only to the relatively well-off), then the remedy is the same as if we want decent education, decent housing or decent health care for all. We must take the power out of the hands of the ruling class and determine all these matters for ourselves, based on the need of the many not the greed of the few.