Saturday, 9 February 2013

Straight from the horse's mouth: why gluten-free eaters should be troubled by the British meat scandal

I'm so hungry I could eat a horse... no wait, I just did.

If you've been following the British horse meat scandal in the news, you've had your fill of equine jokes by now. For those new to the drama, supermarkets in the United Kingdom are under scrutiny after discoveries that horse DNA has been found in budget mincemeat and that in some products, it made up 30% to 100% of the supposed beef mince. And that's not a neigh-gligible proportion (sorry).

Honestly, fellas - it wasn't personal. Don't give me that look!
'Horses' by David Feltcamp. CC BY 2.0
Horse isn't something that graces the British dinner table often, and we can put that down to culture and geography. Personally, I don't believe there's even a smidgen of superiority to be enjoyed in eating one animal and not another (barring endangered species). You won't find me decrying dogs being eaten in China, or weeping over poor old dobbin as I peruse the donkey meat sausages in a French supermarket. Ultimately, eating meat involves participation in an industry that farms, kills and eats living creatures en masse; if we're meat eaters, we aren't in a position to tut at a different nation's cuisine because an animal we personally find endearing is being eaten. (Especially if you are - like me - a consumer of pork. I mean, just look at these guys. It's a moral nightmare.) 'Normality' in a cuisine depends on what is available. And that might well be horse (of course).

Let's hope these aren't from a British supermarket.
'Burgers and Kebabs' by Jem Stone. CC BY 2.0
So if I'm not squeamish about horse meat per se, why am I writing about it? Well, this isn't a matter of delicate British palates being offended by an unexpected newcomer to their tried-and-trusted diets. It's that through incompetence or cost-cutting, consumers were deceived about the contents of their food. People were eating one thing, thinking it was another. And as a gluten-free eater, you know where I'm going with this: if your health depends on non-consumption of certain foods, hearing that the labelling of food can't be trusted is rotten news.

Gluten-free eaters (and followers of other special diets) put a good amount of trust in products labelled specifically as free-from. But plenty of us also eat products outside the specifically labelled free-from section (although I know plenty of coeliacs are sensitive enough to steer clear). For me, if chocolate doesn't list gluteny products in its ingredients, I will probably feel safe eating it. For me, it doesn't have to come from a specifically gluten-free brand; if you say there's no wheat in there, my best guess would be that there is no wheat in there. Because why on earth would you lie about that?

One of you better be gluten-free.
'Chocolate treats' by Robyn Jay. CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the more unpleasant opinions being aired about the horse meat scandal is that anyone who buys ultra-budget meat products shouldn't really expect better. We all make tasteless jokes about value-branded sausages containing rat, pigeon or chicken feet - but in reality, the idea that we should pay higher prices for the privilege of being told what is in the very food that we eat is a repugnant one. (Not to mention a kick in the teeth for gluten-free eaters, who already pay premium prices for food they can safely eat.) If traceability of the contents of food products would add an extra cost that some consumers are unwilling or unable to absorb, then at least give a disclaimer ('may contain wheat'; or 'may contain other kinds of red meat').

So what's next for the gluten-free eater, whose food paranoia has been ignited by the scandal? Do I spend my days firing concerned letters off to food manufacturers, to ask if there's any stealth wheat in their supposedly gluten-less chocolate? Do I avoid mass-produced brands where there's more potential for supplier or factory failures in the long chain between when their food is made and when it reaches my plate? I can only hope that the breaking of this scandal in the UK is a warning klaxon for food manufacturers to up their game and be accountable for what they dish up - basically, to stop horsing around.

Do you trust the labels on your food? Let me know in the comments!