Where’s the Beef? Horse Meat and the Absence of Structural Issues in Discourses of Food and Health

Last week the UK government announced a strategic review on the recent horsemeat scandal, reminding me of a debate about food safety on Radio 4’s Call You and Yours earlier this year.[i]


Although ostensibly discussing the origins of the current ‘scandal’, the show branched widely into questions of lifestyles and food. In perhaps one of the most significant exchanges of the show, one food vendor was brought on to discuss the importance of local produce in engendering trust between consumer, producer and seller. Recognizing how local meat from farmer’s markets and butchers often costs more than supermarket equivalents, this caller spoke of how she ensured her employees were paid the living wage, and would thus be able to afford such produce. She then went on to argue that wages were thus an integral part of this equation, before implying major supermarkets were unlikely to pay as well as her. Obviously being wary of the potential legal problems this represented, the presenter swiftly moved in to declare that he ‘didn’t want to get into that’ because these corporations ‘had no-one on to respond’. However, rather than sticking with the how wages and working environments might shape food consumption and health, the programme instead shifted to a conversation about ‘education’ – specifically the need to teach the uneducated how to make the most of cheaper cuts of meat. (This would not only cut waste, it was argued, but would allow wider access to quality sources).


This desire to avoid discussing structural issues has come to characterize wider debates over food and health. Whilst winning plaudits from some quarters for his school dinners campaign, when was the last time Jamie discussed the role of low wages, gender politics, poor living conditions, inactive employment, the availability of community sports facilities, the cost of exercise, or unsociable and extensive working hours in structuring obesity and relationships to food?[ii] Alternatively, when has any prominent individual involved in public health campaigns been given significant air time to analyse how agricultural subsidies, global food markets, or advertising structure our food habits? Indeed, the fact that our anti-obesity (and oddly, better schools) campaigns have often been fronted by celebrity chefs is itself both disconcerting, and reflective of our obsession with marginalizing economics and production in contemporary discourse.


Instead of structural solutions, then, current discussions have instead opted to bombard us with technical fixes, primarily targeting education about exercise and food regimes. Wages too low? Have family requirements? Food prices gone up? Well ignore the complex systems of production, distribution, consumption, regulation, and trade agreements underpinning these problems.[iii] The answer to that is clearly to teach poor people how to use offal and to cook quicker meals.


Of course, the structure of current discourses about food, risk, health and disease have a long heritage – and one shaped by the declining radicalism of public health (see here). Although taking the form of ‘coercive permissiveness’, the equation of risk factors with personal lifestyle, rather than social determinants of health, has been a staple position of the British medical profession, state, and (largely) public since the 1960s.[iv] Indeed, this logic can be seen in how scientific concerns over food have been publicly debated, and latterly fed into policy, from the 1960s onwards.[v] As Mark Bufton and Virginia Berridge have demonstrated, despite a decade’s worth of public scientific dispute preceding official government advice over heart disease and diet in the 1980s, at no point did any participant pull back to consider the appropriate form of intervention into dietary habits.[vi] Whilst debates raged about which foods might cause disease, all appeared to agree that (a) health promotion was the correct policy option, (b) the NHS and community advice was the right delivery mechanism, and (c) the individual was the appropriate target for advice.


By and large, subsequent decades have seen this position supported by neo-liberal policies around information provision and food labeling. If individuals are to consume rationally, the argument goes, they need to be provided with the proper information about nutritional content and possible health outcomes.[vii] These developments have, moreover, been supported by parts of the food and retail industry itself – with supermarkets in particular keen to increase market share and brand loyalty since the early 1990s.[viii] That health promotion and educational campaigns have often had only short term effects, and generally improved only awareness rather than action, is either ignored completely, or optimistically circumvented by a ‘this time it will be different attitude’.[ix] As, in many instances, are the demographic impacts, such as the marginalization of ethnic minority groups, those with poor literacy, and the poor more generally.[x]


Overcoming our current discursive limitations, then, is only the first step on the road to a more expansive vision and institution of public health, as well as a more holistic understanding of our relationship to the ‘risk factor’ of food. Achieving a more effective policy – one that, for instance, seeks to improve diets by tackling questions of wages, working hours, food production methods and food distribution – will also require negotiating historically entrenched institutional obstacles, such as relationships between scientists, government and the food and supermarket industries. However, without a broader vision of health, food, and risk, this task cannot even commence, let alone succeed. As such, it is up to those dedicated to such a project to turn the ‘sampling device’ of scandals into platforms for debate. Who knows, at some point we might actually make a difference?


Martin Moore

Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick

Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust.

[i] BBC News, ‘Horsemeat scandal to be reviewed, government announces’, BBC News Online, 15/04/2013. Accessed on 23/04/2012. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22149690.


[ii] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1262053/Jamie-Olivers-healthy-school-dinners-campaign-boosted-exam-results.html#axzz2Kmax7FI1.


[iii] In many ways this reminds me of my favourite quote from historian E.P. Thompson: ‘The raw fact – a bad harvest – may appear to be beyond human election. But the way that fact worked its way out was in terms of a particular complex of human relationship; law, ownership, power. When we encounter some sonorous phrase such as ‘the strong ebb and flow of the trade cycle’ we must be put on our guard. For behind this trade cycle there is a structure of social relations, fostering some sorts of expropriation (rent, interest and profit) and outlawing others (theft, feudal dues), legitimizing some forms of conflict (competition, armed warfare) and inhibiting others (trade unionism, bread riots, popular political agitation) – a structure which may appear, in the eyes of the future, to be both barbarous and ephemeral’. The Making of the English Working Class, (Pelican: Harmondsworth, 1968), 224.


[iv] Virginia Berridge, for instance, has used the 1962 Royal College of Physicians report on smoking as a handy historical signpost for the emergence of this framework – one where individuals are deemed responsible for their choices, but within which political and medical authorities try shape choice through education and light regulation: V. Berridge, ‘Medicine and the Public: The 1962 Report of the Royal College of Physicians and the New Public Health’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 81, .286-311.


[v] M. W. Bufton and V. Berridge, ‘Post-war nutrition science and policy making in Britain c. 1945-1994: the case of diet and heart disease’, in, D. Smith and J. Phillips (eds.), Food, Science, Policy and Regulation in the Twentieth Century: International and Comparative Perspectives, (Routledge: London, 2000), 207-222.


[vi] Bufton and Berridge, ‘Post-war nutrition science and policy’, 211-215.


[vii] Food and Drink Federation, Food Labelling for Healthy Eating: Understanding The What’s Inside Guide and GDAs. The origin of the piece also provides support for role of the industry in influencing and supporting these polices. For the leaflet: http://www.fdf.org.uk/publicgeneral/HCP_leaflet.pdf.


[viii] We only have to see the way Sainsbury’s has employed Jamie Oliver, David Beckham and a dedication to ‘5-a-day’ in recent years to see how brand image and the focus on ‘individuals as risk consumers’ go hand in glove.


[ix] For a study demonstrating the short-term effects/restriction to attitudes and awareness: M. Hillsdon et.al., ‘National level promotion of physical activity: results from England’s Active for Life campaign, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 55, 2001, 755-761. (Available here for subscribers: http://jech.bmj.com/content/55/10/755.abstract); For the optimistic attitude that recognizes, though marginalizes such problems: NHS Health Development Agency, ‘The effectiveness of public health campaigns’, HDA Briefing7, 2004, 1-5. Available: http://www.nice.org.uk/niceMedia/documents/CHB7-campaigns-14-7.pdf.


[x] The University of Warwick has established a forum through which to discuss and confront these problems specifically for ethnic minority groups (though intersections with class, poverty and literacy are intimately interwoven here): http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/chm/research_teaching/research/idea/.


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