Lies on the Plate

15 Feb 2013

Today the simple notion of ‘knowing what we eat’ is at the heart of a judicial inquiry. But the investigation into how horsemeat came to arrive in so-called beef products in Europe, and as far as the US, is far from straightforward. What is being revealed is an extremely complicated meat processing and distribution chain that is difficult to follow. And surrounding the scandal is a conspicuous lack of information – about the animals’ breeding, feed quality and welfare as well as compliance with food safety standards.

As a result of the large size of the companies concerned, the geographical area involved is growing each day. The scandal has now reached the United States, where horsemeat was found in Burger King products, as well as the United Kingdom, where it was found in Findus lasagna and frozen burgers. And maybe there’s more to come.

The recent events are shocking on many levels, not least because eating horsemeat is considered taboo in places such as the UK and USA, where cultural sensitivities have been offended deeply by the discovery. It’s not just a matter of legal or health importance, there is also a cultural aspect that must be taken into account. Then there’s the food safety issue. Horsemeat in itself shouldn’t pose any more risk than beef – we eat it in Italy where it’s a specialty of many regions. The danger is that horses may have been given a drug known as bute (phenylbutazone) that can be dangerous to humans.

So now it seems that reading the label is not enough to protect ourselves. However, the European Parliament is full of defenders of our free market, who are ready to jump up in protest when someone asks for detailed and honest food labels or mandatory place-of-origin labeling.

So what is to be made of all this? The first thought that comes to my mind is, “lucky is he or she who can cook.” The second is, “lucky is he or she who knows reliable producers and restaurants that can be trusted as honest suppliers.” But the third is, “We should be ashamed!” How have we as humanity become so despicable that we can betray our brothers and sisters, jeopardize their health and neglect their rights, all for the sake of money?

On the subject of a more respectful approach to labeling, Slow Food has issued a position paper that will be available online soon. The document highlights the main aspects of the new EU Regulation 1169/2011 and outlines Slow Food’s vision of quality, supporting the “narrative label” as an answer to the limitations of legal labels. Although we appreciate the progress made by the Commission, which approved the regulation, we still see great shortcomings that must be remedied with new instruments.

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food President
Article first published in La Repubblica, February 13, 2013

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