By Mark Spalding, senior scientist, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team
A strange scandal is sweeping across Europe at the moment.
We’ve all been unwittingly eating horse meat, thinking it was beef.
This is not the delicious foal steak that can be bought in the best restaurants of Northern Italy; this is minced offal of unknown provenance sold as beef and packaged into the cheapest burgers and pre-cooked meals.
It’s a big story.
Chances are that many of us here in Europe have, at one time or another, tucked in to a little bit of some old nag or young filly. I’m not as upset about it as others. I think it’s pretty likely that most of these horses were simply surplus free-range animals.
Perhaps we should even prefer to eat them over the poor creatures reared indoors or in feed-lots, tight-packed and hormone-pumped, with no access to grass.
A similar scandal has been bubbling over with fish: studies have drawn attention to mislabelling across Europe, South Africa, and Australia, but most especially the United States, where it seems that most of what you buy is not what it claims to be.
In a recent Californian study every single fish sold as “snapper” wasn’t, and 9 out of 10 sushi samples were mislabeled.
This should upset us even more than horse meat, especially when you learn, for example, that escolar (a fish that can cause severe food poisoning if eaten in larger portions) is widely sold as white tuna in sushi restaurants, and regularly turns up as cod, grouper and sea bass elsewhere.
It’s a problem in Europe too. One study in Ireland showed that 84 percent of smoked fish wasn’t what the label or supermarket claimed.
Ethically minded consumers need to beware too. Here in the UK cod-labeling was generally not too bad, but there were a few cases of the more threatened Atlantic cod being sold as “sustainably sourced” Pacific cod.
In the long-run good may still come from these stories, because they stop us in our tracks.
Of course many horse-lovers may find themselves choking over their lasagna, but perhaps they’ll be more interested in what they eat next time.
Personally I’m just going to avoid all fish in the United States unless I’m quite convinced I could trace it right back to the fisher, or find fish with a reliable third party certification.
These sorts of scandals might well also tip a new crowd over towards vegetarianism, or at least eating less meat and fish, and that will have huge environmental benefits. If you’re a farmer or a fisher reading this you should be angry of course. And we should all be demanding change.
Dodgy food shouldn’t come as a surprise: it’s a classic market response to disinterested purchasers and loose legal regimes.
We live in a complex world where almost any food can be bought, at any time of year. In a single pre-cooked meal, a stew of continents and seasons may be blended and blurred to such a degree that it would take a full PhD study to try and trace its origins. So it’s pretty easy to break in and disrupt the chain of decent supply.
This wealth of sources, however, is a luxury that should come with a responsibility and these scandals help to raise our concerns. I’m not over-optimistic of course. In a few months we’ll all revert to type, and consumers will push back towards scouring the shelves for the cheapest food and never reading the labels.
We environmentalists should see these moments of public outrage as moments of opportunity, a chance to move fast to shift the needle.
They may lead to collapse of the worst offending providers, the scaling up of use of certification schemes, and the installation of legal requirements to reduce the worst excesses.
If environmentalists seize the day, they can create changes that will hold even when the huge juggernaut of public consumption starts to drift back to its old indifference.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.