Horses for courses

The horse-in-processed-meats scandal is, in many respects, one of the least important of the many indignities imposed on working class people by the food industry writes Phil Ward. Nonetheless, the story has developed in some interesting ways.
At the time of writing (mid-February), it is still not clear how the horse meat was found in the first place. The retailers do not test for horse (or donkey), and the local authorities have cut back their food testing labs, so that only a minimal (perhaps I should say “skeleton”) service remains. It seems that the Irish FSA was tipped off to do this test, but the adulteration could have gone on for years. The discovery that the source of some of this meat was Romania sparked the usual xenophobic wailing in the media. However, it transpires that the product was probably initially labelled as horse and deliberately “processed into beef” by one or more companies in France, with the help of a fraudster based in the Netherlands. (A quick google search indicates that the Romanian for “horse” is not “boeuf”, but “cal”). But this story does not explain why a slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire has been raided: I presume the Romanian horses were pretty dead after export from that country and being turned into lasagne and pies in France, and wouldn’t need to visit a second slaughterhouse.

The fact that certain laws have been broken, and food labelling fraud has taken place, merely highlights the money-grabbing nature of the industry, and the short cuts that it is prepared to take. Horse meat is said to cost £700 per tonne, as opposed to beef being £3,200 per tonne, 4 ½ times as much. What is not said is whether much of the beef that is placed in processed food, such as pies and minced products, really costs that much. It is very unlikely, suggesting that pies-with-horse probably contain better quality meat that your normal “Shergar-free” meat pie.
One only has to look at the EU definition of “meat” to see that this could be the case: “skeletal muscle, with naturally included fat and connective tissue”. The non-muscle components are allowed to comprise 55%, 50% and 25% respectively in pigs, red meats and birds and rabbits. Basically, manufacturers throw everything they are allowed to into their processed products (and more besides, as we have seen) and call it “meat”. They are then permitted to add tissue obtained “using mechanical means resulting in the loss or modification of the muscle fibre structure”, but since last year have had to label this “meat product”, as it no longer “has the characteristics of fresh meat”. Of course, the UK Foods Standards Agency, which has long been in the pocket of the food industry, wanted to still call this muck meat, but was overruled by the EU.
While the Department of Health says “it is unacceptable that anyone should be eating meat that is not what it says on the label”, they fail to see the irony of this statement even when equine contamination hasn’t occurred.

Horsing Around with Our Food

Contamination and adulteration are the life-blood of the processed food industry. It is the natural by-product of allowing control of food production, from farm to plate, to remain in the hands of the capitalist class. So, the safety issues start with what is fed to farm animals and the conditions they are kept in. The BSE crisis in Britain and the EU, starting in 1996, exemplifies this perfectly. It was the result of the feeding of dead farm animal carcasses – especially the parts not used for human consumption (meat and bone meal – MBM) – to cattle. The MBM processing temperatures had been reduced – to save money – meaning that the BSE-causing agent was not destroyed and proliferated through the UK herd. So far, there have been 184,000 cases in UK cattle, and 169 people have died as a result of eating infected “beef” (actually, nerve tissue and brain – no longer allowed into “beef” products).

This has all had some strange knock-on effects. For example, MBM is now incinerated in a specially-adapted power station in Lincolnshire, leading to a bit of a waste headache. I once had the task of finding if this waste (mainly calcium phosphate, the mineral in bone) could be used to “lock up” the lead remaining in the slag produced by the recovery of lead from car batteries (another waste headache): as is often the case, there was insufficient money and time put into the project to find out if this worked. Similarly, schools are no longer allowed to dissect eyes from cattle. They usually use pigs’ eyes, which are smaller, difficult to cut up and to see, and of course can raise religious objections.

Farm animals are also fed excessive antibiotics, as these aid growth. The development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria leads to thousands of deaths a year. Currently, concern centres on China, where feed to pigs in factory farms is unregulated. A recent study showed that 149 genes carried by microbes in these pigs could be harnessed for antibiotic resistance.
Then there are the diseases that farm animals acquire and spread as a result of their conditions. Perhaps the most important are the bacterium salmonella and the viruses, like ‘flu (H5N1 in birds, H1N1 in pigs, possibly) and SARS (all livestock). Sometimes, the pathogens don’t affect the animals themselves and so are of no monetary concern to the producers, but they can be lethal to humans. This is the case with salmonella in poultry, which is currently controlled in Europe, although this depends on the compliance of farmers to vaccinate – and a regulatory system weakened by cuts. In the USA there is no requirement for vaccination, with the result that 1 million people get the disease and hundreds die every year. The viruses are of a different order, with H5N1 threatening global pandemic: it is through contact with infected poultry that this pathogen is most likely to spread to humans on a large scale.

All these diseases are spread geographically by the complex market in livestock and meat products. Perhaps the most dramatic recent example is the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001. Ten million sheep and cattle were slaughtered in an attempt to prevent the spread. Again, along with the market structure, money was an issue, from the farmer who caused the outbreak feeding his pigs unsterilized infected meat, to the National Farmers’ Union refusing vaccination of cattle, as that would affect the UK’s export market.

Then there is adulteration during processing, denounced by Marx and Engels in the mid-nineteenth century and, as we have seen, continuing to this day. Some are very serious. These include: the use in 1985 as a sweetener of toxic diethylene glycol (antifreeze) in Austrian wine; the selling in 1981 in Spain, of “olive oil”, which was in fact rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline, for use in machines – 700 people died; the addition (China, 2008) of melamine to milk, to make it appear to have a higher protein content – killing six babies and affecting up to 300,000 people. As well as adding toxins, generally illegal, it is perfectly legal to add water and air, to bulk up your product, be it chicken “low fat” spread or ice cream (Thatcher!) This usually requires some extra chemical additive as well.

Another form of adulteration is the use of excessive quantities of additives, especially sugars, fats and salt. Just as an example, a 2 litre bottle of Coca-Cola contains 216 grams of sugar – that’s 1/5th of a normal pack! Their 500ml bottles (11 teaspoons of sugar) quote the sugar content and proportion of recommended daily allowance for half a bottle, as if they expect a purchaser to keep the other half for the next day. The FSA is responsible for this situation, as they control food labelling and they have consistently refused to force the adoption of the “traffic lights” system on all packaged foods.

Finally, we need to look at the chemical effects of food processing. Possibly the most interesting and mysterious is the discovery in 2002 of the carcinogen acrylamide in fried, roasted or toasted foods, particularly things like bread (especially toast), biscuits, potatoes (crisps, chips and roast) and coffee. No conclusive proof of a connection between acrylamide ingestion and cancer in humans has yet been found, but the World Health Organisation considers there to be no minimum safe level for acrylamide and the European Chemical Agency calls it a “substance of very high concern”. After the initial scare, the issue has faded from view, possibly because the compound is so ubiquitous in the “Western” diet. The widespread reliance on processed food increases people’s exposure to acrylamide.

Riding Roughshod Over the Planet

As has been shown, much of our food is unhealthy and adulterated. Half of it is thrown away at some point in the “supply chain”, either for cosmetic reasons, due to poor storage, to inappropriate portion sizes, or lack of knowledge of how to deal with “leftovers”. 35% of the world’s grain and 85% of soy meal is fed to the 56 billion domestic animals that are killed every year. 17% of grain is converted into to biodiesel.

Meat consumption is slated to increase by 70-80% by 2050. I actually think it is impossible for it to rise that much, as the strain on the world’s land and other resources would be unbearable. In almost all cultures, meat is not needed for nutritional purposes and we should follow zoologist Colin Tudge’s suggestion that it should be used in dishes as a garnish only, to add flavour.
Animal farming is a major contributor to global warming, through transport, fertiliser (it’s made from natural gas and it emits the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide), emissions of methane from the animals’ digestive systems and the diversion of land from uses that could capture carbon. The nitrogen cycle is three times its “natural size”, due to the excessive use of fertilisers. This has major consequences for the productivity and biodiversity of the seas as well as the land.
All of these things indicate that the capitalist agricultural system is unsustainable. The added uncertainties of climate change and extreme weather events mean that it could enter a major crisis in the medium term, with untold consequences for billions of people.

Capitalism has done enough horsing around with our food system. I hope this article has shown that socialism is a prerequisite for turning this situation around. A set of transitional demands about control of the food production cycle needs to be formulated, along with a way of bringing such demands to fruition – matters for further discussion.



  1. Good article. We could also point out that even the UN has admitted, after doing research, that better yields are generally obtained from organic agriculture. We have to aim high in many ways, including taking over agribusiness and shutting it down, and reorganising production. On meat I think the way forward is “grass-fed” i.e. the traditional way – the animals would still produce methane, but at least they could be kept humanely and fed properly, not on stuff full of chemicals, and could be kept on marginal land not useful for arable – as was traditionally done in mountain areas like the Zagros from the beginning of agriculture – certainly not in cut-down areas of the Amazon.
    Lots of people are growing organic vegetables – anyone who can should support organic producers, and we should back campaigns to ban at least the worst pesticides, which have been implicated in bee collapse. Some people talk as though organic food is just for the well-off – but the left needs to understand that it is something to campaign for, for everyone’s health, and for the future of the planet – there is plenty of evidence that organic is usually more nutritious; and as Phil said, adulteration of food is one of capitalists’ key skills – that includes putting rubbish into fruit juice and encouraging people to think they are doing themselves a favour with it, or using lots of fertiliser to grow veg because it is cheaper – to the producer, who doesn’t end up eating the pesticides.

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