I just returned to London after a week in Slovenia. Whenever I’m on holiday, I allow myself to fully disengage from the ‘real world’ and therefore try to evade all mediums of news. But it’s been hard to avoid the current media furore which is now stretching across Europe, the so-called ‘Horsemeat scandal’. In short, the ‘scandal’ is that a number of mass-produced, processed meat products labelled as containing beef have, in fact, been found to contain horsemeat. From burgers to ready-made lasagnas and cottage pies, it seems that many of us British folks have been in danger of unintentionally chowing down on a piece of horse.
The reason I mentioned that I’ve just returned from Slovenia was not to brag about my trip – although Slovenia is, in my opinion, one of Europe’s most underrated and beautiful countries and well worth a visit at any time of year. I digress – but because it couldn’t escape my notice that the country’s lively, young capital city Ljubljana, is home to a popular fast-food restaurant called ‘Hot Horse’. No prizes for guessing what the plat du jour is at this burger joint. Of course, Britain’s closest neighbours in France are also more than fond of their neighing food fetish. Yet here we are in the UK, speaking of a ‘horsemeat scandal’.
On a weekly political TV show this morning, a commentator, referencing the fact that many of the horses involved in the meat supply were older animals, spoke candidly of the difference between horse meat (as in a fancy French restaurant) served as a specialty plate and the meat of ‘scraggy, old horses’. She makes a fair point. Yet somehow, I doubt that a month ago, this commentator or anyone else for that matter, gave a second’s thought to the potential that their cheap and cheerful beef meal came from a scraggy old cow. It is this hypocritical hierarchy of animals that I’m finding increasingly perplexing. For the British, eating cow, chicken or pig isn’t a problem. Yet horsemeat is taboo, it is squirm-inducing, it’s a ‘scandal’.
It’s time to lay my cards on the table. I am, as you may have already guessed, a vegetarian and admittedly, at times I incline towards being one of those slightly annoying, self-righteous, evangelical vegetarians. So I sit here smugly in the knowledge that I haven’t recently eaten horsemeat. Although, when I was a meat-eater, I was happy to give anything a try, from ostrich to shark, grasshoppers (a Ugandan delicacy) to pheasant. I liked the taste of meat and was an adventurous meat-eater. But one of my (many) reasons for giving up meat, was that I found it necessary to opt out of the contemporary meat industry. Whilst my faith tradition has no obligation against eating meat, you do find a lot of vegetarian Quakers. Some choose not to eat meat for environmental reasons, and for many, myself included, vegetarianism seems like a logical extension of Quakerly peace work and pacifism. There’s really no two ways about it, the mass production of cheap meat can’t possibly be compatible with the peaceful, loving, rearing of animals.
For me, this is where the real ‘scandal’ lies: mass produced meat is too cheap. How can it be possible for British supermarket chains to sell three full chickens for just £10 (about $15USD)? When the cost to consumers is so low, but a profit still needs to be made both by the poultry farmer, and the store, something has to give. And so the truism never rang more clearly: you get what you pay for.
To argue that we ought to pay more for meat is not to penalize the poor as some might try to claim. Processed meat meals rarely offer the most economical ways to eat; a good cut of meat cleverly cooked, which isn’t pumped full of water like cheap meat, provides more protein, not to mention more flavour. Further, the idea that meat is meant to be eaten at every meal, every day is contrived and potentially dangerous. There are many cheaper and healthier ways of gaining proteins and nutrients without the increased risks of cancer and heart disease associated with excessive meat consumption. Meat at each meal-time needs to be seen less as a given, and more as a luxury, by all of us.
It is important to state that I don’t disagree that what has happened is wrong; when an individual buys a product marked beef, it ought to contain beef and nothing else. But what I’m asking is: why is it only after people have mistakenly eaten something that they are uncomfortable eating (for whatever reason) that they think about what they eat? In the West we are all guilty of putting processed foods and endless portions of meat in to our mouths, in to our bodies, without a moment’s recognition of where it came from and whether or not we will benefit from its consumption.
Perhaps if more of us spared a thought for the conditions necessary to produce cheap meat, the demand for these products would be lower. If the demand for cheap meats was lower, perhaps this ‘scandal’ might never have happened. I hope that the ‘horsemeat scandal’ will act as a reminder that it is time we gave meat-eating the respect it deserves. It is time that we pay a fair price for the animals we choose to kill to eat. What do I mean? Heck, I can take three lives, I can buy three whole chickens, for the same price as a DVD. You want to talk about scandal?