Published on February 22nd, 20130
The Horse Meat Scandal: A Symptom of a Larger Problem?
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
One reason the ongoing European horsemeat scandal is upsetting to the general public is that people are emotionally attached to the horse. However, this incident illustrates a much larger problem than foods containing horse, namely that we as consumers all too often are not aware of what we eat.
Horsemeat has been discovered in products labeled as 100 percent beef and is sold in, among others, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, and France. Products labeled as beef lasagna and beef burgers, but containing horse meat, have been sold in supermarkets around western and northern Europe. Food authorities in these countries have launched investigations, but the supply-chain being studied includes still more countries.
Why is eating horsemeat considered to be such a scandal? Would it upset the public if there was found meat of lamb or chicken, instead of horsemeat in the frozen lasagna? It is important to point out that there is a possibility that the horsemeat contains medicines that pose a potential health risk. Even so, this does not explain all of the reactions. In addition one has to take into account the special position of the horse in European history.
No animal has been more vital to both survival and culture than the horse. The horse has been used for transportation and as a working force. It has also been a sign of power and social status. During battles horses stolen from enemy tribes were proof of a warrior’s bravery. Horses have appeared in works of art throughout history, frequently as depictions of the horse in battle. The bond between humans and horses is also one of compassion and loyalty.
We often do not know what we eat
As a result of the special status of the horse, many people are concerned with the emotional sides of eating horsemeat. Despite the psychological dimension, this incident should lead to a greater debate around the frequent missing or misleading product information. One example is trans-fatty acids, popularly known as trans-fat. Trans-fats occur during the processing of polyunsaturated fatty acids in food production. They may increase the risk of coronary heart disease, by raising the levels of bad LDL-cholesterol. Trans-fat is for example found in French fries, fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, pastries and crackers. French fries contain about 40 percent trans-fatty acids, while many popular cookies and crackers contain between 30 to 50 percent trans-fat acids.
Even if these fats are health damaging the food declarations do not inform the consumer of these acids. In most countries it is not required of food companies to list trans-fat acids on nutrition labels. As a result consumers have no way of knowing the amount of trans-fat in the food they are eating.
Another example is the damaging health effects of highly processed plant oils, such as palm oil, corn oil, and soybean oils. These oils are found in a wide range of products. The producers have found a solution to this problem that deceives the consumer; they label these unhealthy oils as vegetable oils, thus hiding their real names. Since people often believe that vegetable oils are healthy they naturally assume that these products are of good quality.
The horsemeat scandal is just a symptom of an even larger problem. Many foods contain health-damaging substances that we are not aware of, and there is too often a lack of product information as to what they contain. Hopefully this incidence will lead to more restrictions and control over the food industry. The public needs to be more aware of what they eat, and deserves better information on food contents.
*Photo of horses by Jim Champion.