At the beginning of the year the scandal of beef products adulterated with horse meat broke, leading supermarkets across Europe to withdraw affected products, particularly processed and ready meals, some of which contained up to 100% horse instead of beef. Horse is of course much cheaper.
For the ruling class the duty to maximise profit and grow capital is a far higher ethic than the health of workers or anyone else who doesn’t own anything – or even simple honesty. In any case, we have been reminded that horse is safe to eat and this is an issue of fraud rather than public health – which ignores the fact that the suppliers have not taken the necessary care to avoid carcasses contaminated by veterinary medicines such as ‘bute’ (phenylbutazone, which was banned from human use due to a fairly rare but very dangerous side effect). If the risk to anyone who has consumed this horse meat is extremely small this is not due to any particular care on the part of the ruling class. Toxic oil syndrome which killed 600 people in 1981 in Spain was due to colza oil intended for industrial use being sold as olive oil. A recent US study showed 69% of imported olive oils were not what they purported to be.
Adulteration of food is nothing new in capitalism and became a particular problem with industrialisation and the growth of towns which needed to be supplied with food. In the 19th Century many substances, including poisons, were added to bread or beer, including alum, plaster of Paris, sawdust, and strychnine. Decades passed, long after the danger of these substances was shown, before legislation was enacted against this practice in the UK in 1860.
Today we have reason to be even more worried about pollution of our food, whether from normal waste or accidents such as Fukushima. Studies have shown high levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead and copper, in water and vegetables due to pollution from mining, smelting and other industrial processes in Turkey, Greece, Nigeria, Egypt and New South Wales in Australia. Whether the ruling class have had any interest in studying it or not we have no doubt that there is even worse industrial pollution in India, China and other ‘developing’ countries. In the 1950s up to 50,000 people were poisoned by mercury in fish at Minamata in Japan, and 5,000 died. There continue to be warnings by the US Food and Drug Administration to avoid eating fish with the highest levels of mercury such as shark and swordfish.
Whatever prompted the media and politicians to get so excited about horse meat labelled as beef – whether to get the consumer to buy one brand rather than a competitor’s, or for political advantage – it gives us a glimpse of a far wider problem: how the search for profit damages our food.