Flogging a dead horsemeat lasagne

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The scandal over frozen horse meat passed off as beef bolognese in Europe is simply representative of the way the world works now, writes Associate Professor Evan Jones.

Photo obtained from a French friend who advises that ‘à cheval sur’ is a locution for ‘a stickler for [quality]’. One can see why French became the language of diplomacy.
THE EUROPEAN HORSEGATE scandal is a kaleidoscopic morality tale for the present age. It is the coagulation of disparate but ultimately harmonious strands of contemporary capitalism.

Let’s first confront the fact that frozen horse meat-supposed-beef bolognese lasagna is representative of the way the world works, condoned by all those forces that matter. It is not an accident.

Horsegate is the spread of Mad Cow Disease revisited. Over 200 people died from variant CJD, the linked human disease. Medically, vCJD is still not conclusively ‘dead and buried’, with potentially more victims. Nobody has died from horsemeat substitution (NB: the French are regular consumers of horse flesh) but the underlying principles are the same. The principles are an unmitigated pursuit of industrial agriculture (eradication of free range animal raising, enhanced scale and intensity of mass production, the introduction of animal by-product feed for animal raising); the limitless extension and non-traceability of supply chains; and an accommodating regulatory apparatus, including free trade in animal inputs and products across national borders.

The European project has not merely facilitated but actively supported this process. French economist André Gauron’s 1999 book, European Misunderstanding, outlines the backdrop in a section instructively titled ‘Civil Liberties Without Citizens’ and a chapter titled ‘The right to sell as a doctrine’. It is Europe’s contribution to the global corporate suzerainty that gave us the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the on-the-boil Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Gauron claims that the push takes off after the Single European Act of 1986. The SEA entrenched the freedom of movement across borders — thus not excluding the movement of toxic chemicals, nuclear waste, and Mad Cow Disease. The European Commission enforced the principle. The British Thatcherite Leon Brittan, successively as EC Competition Commissioner then Trade Commissioner during 1989-99, was a key Brussels activist pushing universal free trade.

With respect to foodstuffs in particular, the Commission was intent on inhibiting notions of ‘national culture’ being used as de-facto protectionism. Thus, the pressure towards the intra-EU harmonisation of manufacturing techniques. But to what end? Complementing this agenda, the EC push to dismantle national regulatory structures also took off in the 1980s, pushing regulatory tolerance of trans-European movement of goods and capital.

Following the self-invention of silo-ised academic specialties, armchair economists wax lyrical about a generic abstract market mechanism, while studiously avoiding describing (save for a few lesser statused mortals among them) how real-world markets actually operate. Melbourne’s 1950s Downyflake Donuts motif (Swanston Street, opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral) captured the error:
As you wander on through life brother
Whatever be your goal
Keep your eye upon the Donut
And not upon the hole.

Before economists existed there was non-stop fighting over how particular markets were to be constituted, for everybody knew that the rules provided the substance. Everybody also knew that particular rules served particular interests. Distance was often an influential factor in the balance of forces. Whereas silks and spices, say, might travel long journeys and be subject to elaborate inter-group arrangements and conflicts, there was perennial pressure to keep simple the production and sale of foodstuffs. From the late Middle Ages through the early modern period (11th Century to 18th Century?) in England/Britain, there were perennial attempts to instil and enforce prohibition of the colourful offences of ‘engrossing, forestalling and regrating’.[3]

In short, cut out the middlemen from cornering the market. Farmers’ markets are the contemporary replication of the medieval bypassing of the middlemen. Traceable fresh commodities with no nasty additives, and a decent return to the producer.

If these proscriptions were intended primarily to inhibit price gouging, a long consternation over the quality of marketed foodstuffs ran in parallel. The early part of a soporifically long 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Adulteration highlights the long temptation to poison the naturally ill-informed customer in pursuit of extra profit. With industrialisation in the 18th Century came more heightened commodification of food, accompanied by a more comprehensive adulteration process of marketed foodstuffs. Which in turn generated a rearguard regulatory response during the 19th Century.

Into the 20th Century, we seem to have been reasonably well served by a food industry regulatory regime pragmatically developed out of crisis. But the neo-liberal age that adulates the efficacy of self-regulation, vilifies the oppressive ‘nanny state’ and happily rewrites history courtesy of well-remunerated flunkies, has returned the adulteration phenomenon to our plates.

Hence Mad Cow Disease and vCJD. Generally, think universal excesses of sugar and salt, etc., under the lid. Fat is the new black. Locally, think of the Coles and Woolworths’ ruthless loss leading on milk that led to the processors secretly adding the watery cheese-making by-product Permeate to the product. Think Coles’ definition of ‘free range’ eggs.

Then think of the 2008 Chinese melamine substitution scandal in milk and other food products. China is where Australia’s out-of-control retail duopoly will be sourcing an increasing quantum of its foodstuffs supplies as the duopoly’s relentless price gouging of farm suppliers means that the next generation is not going to replace their parents.

We are now better informed regarding the character of the latter day industrialisation of agriculture and animal raising (the 2008 American documentary Food Inc. as compulsory viewing). But we have entered an even more highly ‘refined’ stage – financialised industrialised agriculture and animal raising. Financialisation further pushes the imperative away from the product (now irrelevant) to ready profit.

A British journalist has outlined parts of the supply chain behind the horse meat substitution, but a French outlet provides a more complete picture. This from the weekly Le Canard Enchainé, 13 February 2013:
Tucker à la finance

The well-known Findus logo, created by the Swedes more than 60 years ago, inspires confidence. No sight of ‘cheap and nasty’ here. Save that it’s been ages that Findus was actually Swedish. After having been owned for a period by the Swiss Nestlé, this king of frozen foods was bought by an American investment fund, then swallowed in 2008 by another investment fund, this time British, Lion Capital, which comes itself to cede two-thirds of Findus to four creditors, including Société Générale and the US investment bank JP Morgan.

To produce, amongst other things, its bolognaise lasagne, Findus (as do comparable industrials) makes use of the Comigel group. This company, unknown to the general public, is however one of the European champions of pre-cooked frozen meals. Comigel itself was sold in 2007 by a British holding company to Céréa Capital, a French investment fund which generally makes its pile from the catering trade (it is, for example, majority co-shareholder in Buffalo Grill, Léon de Bruxelles, Planet Sushi, as well as APM)

Each year, Comigel, headquartered at Metz, consigns the production of 17,000 tonnes of moussaka, mince and lasagne to the factory of its subsidiary Tavola, installed in Luxembourg [no doubt for tax advantages]. So many pre-cooked frozen meals on which the known retail brands attach their labels before selling them across 16 countries.

One part of the meat ‘worked’ by Travola in Luxembourg is provided by the company Spanghero. This company in turn belongs to the giant cooperative of France’s South-West, Lur Berri, with a turnover of the order of a billion euros, partly known by the brand name Labeyrie.

To further reduce costs a Cypriot trader was hired, who in turn subcontracted the operation to a Netherlands trader, who sourced the meat from an abattoir outside of Bucharest.

It is noteworthy that lowly Romania has declined to take the rap. The Romanians have claimed that they supplied horse meat on demand, as ordered from France. Ditto Spanghero, which claims that the stuff left its factories with a horse meat label. Ergo, no traceability and no accountability.

A movable feast indeed. There’s haute cuisine and there’s high gastronomic larceny.

Well that’s the supply side. Why does this stuff sell? There is no simple answer to this question – a historical diversion provides some clues.

Eighteenth Century industrialisation and after brought a gradual removal from the soil (brutally initiated by Enclosures) and tougher and more regimented work regimes. The same industrialisation process that made industrial-era workers also made consumers of marketed commodities. Long hours and downward pressure on already low pay or intermittent employment made cheap food and drink necessary, with adulteration an integral part of the loop. Choice was an alien concept.

The passage of the 19th Century saw an accretion of leverage amongst the more privileged of workers (in the White Settler colonies, aided by labour shortages). The ‘labour aristocracy’ cemented their dissent in the push not merely to enhance their material conditions but to enhance their humanity. This orientation demanded a balanced life – hence the 8-hour day movement.

In this political push from below, some gains were made (albeit not without bloodshed — witness the 1886 Haymarket massacre). As this push broadened and extended into the 20th Century, business leaders and members of the Establishment took fright. Labour’s seeming desire to emulate its betters would involve the undermining of wage labour’s subjugation to the discipline of the workplace, which dictated not merely subservience at work but a comparable social subservience outside it. The deep culturally entrenched fabric of a class-based society (already threatened by the recent ascendancy of the adult male franchise) was at risk if wage labour had time and the means to think for itself.

The existence, scope and significance of this turn-of-the-century battle is little understood, but it is admirably captured in sociologist Gary Cross’ 1993 Time and Money: the making of consumer culture. The outcome of the battle in short? The bosses and the Establishment won the war, but the working class gradually gained concessions as the price of their ongoing subordination — a shorter working week, paid annual holidays, etc.

Automobile maker Henry Ford had the most profound response to this battle. The visionary (if otherwise reactionary) Henry Ford envisaged a ‘virtuous circle’ of mass production and mass consumption – pay one’s lesser skilled workers a decent wage and ultimately they too will be able to purchase one’s product. Thus industrialisation and commodification could continue apace, indeed accelerate.

The ensuing process of commodification had complex effects on foodstuffs consumption. In the first instance, the 1920s beginning of the mass production of household consumer durables accommodated the turn-of-the-century paternalistically-driven ‘home economics’ movement and the then strict gender division of labour (women out of the workplace upon marriage). The combination opened opportunities for profit in a range of new sectors by catering, atypical historically, to the nurturing of home-prepared more nourishing food for a broader section of the population. An advertising industry and socialisation regime supported the happy nexus.

The materialisation of Ford’s vision is graced in academia by the label of Fordism (borrowing Antonio Gramsci’s 1930s phrase). Fordism, embodying complementary rising profits and rising wages, reached its pinnacle in the post-WWII long boom in the West; the French appropriately call their version Les Trentes Glorieuses.

But the essence of Fordism was the entrenchment of the acculturation of the priority of work over a balanced life (this was precisely Ford’s intent) — what Cross calls a culture of ‘work and spend’. The anarchist slogan puts it more crudely: work, buy, consume, die.

During the long boom, feminism and necessity curiously combine to intrude on the gender division of household labour, and the two-adult worker, two-income family is germinated and multiplies. The advertising industry and socialisation regime accommodate and proselytise the evolving appropriate lifestyle.

Profit now finds green pastures in more intensively commodified foodstuffs which are propagandised as first complementing the worthy home-prepared nourishing diet, as a ‘convenience’; then, with the heightened pressures of work, as a necessity. The imperatives of the workplace cannot be questioned, and everything else, including eating habits, must accommodate it. Here is the logic of the culture of work and spend — one works harder to be able to afford to purchase more commodified foodstuffs because the time is lacking for the adequate preparation of meals. Thus the foundations for the current age are laid.

Karl Marx coined the aphorism for all previous socio-economic regimes: ‘all that is solid melts into air’. So also with Fordism (go to the head of the class Karl). The long boom comes to an inglorious end. The airhead pundits grab for scapegoats (OPEC oil rapaciousness), but the end was inevitable. Capital must find new means of re-establishing a regime or regimes of substantial profit. The brutal experimentation and destruction of old ways has been on a grand scale, still rampant.

A significant component of the new age (in the West) we might reasonably label as WalMartism.

Sam Walton created Wal-Mart in pre-modern Arkansas, refashioning feudal subservience overnight into post-modern subservience. Walton and his rapacious progeny have merely bypassed the compensatory mechanisms of Fordism in a renewed regime of wages repression and worker serfdom, coupled with the obliteration and proletarianisation of petit bourgeois competitors and suppliers (and aided by newly industrialising low wage Asia). Forward into the past.

In this environment necessity turns even more assertively to intensively commodified foodstuffs with the lowest price tag. A recent article in the British Guardian is titled ‘Horse meat scandal exposes the cheap food imperative’. The (vegetarian) author claims:
… the horse meat imbroglio has revealed the astounding power of preferences that are cultural, rather than rational. But at the same time, this ever-widening story cuts straight to the heart of how messed up our eating and shopping habits have become, and what a completely screwed-up economy is doing to the most basic aspects of how we live. Ours is an economy in which ludicrously cheap food is an absolute necessity, and not just for the people on benefits and limited incomes whose caricatured presence has been there in just about everything written about the current scandal. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, wages continue to stagnate, bills carry on rising and the only thing that a lot of people can either cut back or keep to a minimum is food spending. …

the cheap food imperative extends along a long social continuum, and reaches most of us. Last week, the market research company Mintel released figures suggesting that 89% of Britons now shop on a budget – and, moreover, that "some 30% of consumers buy budget ranges compared to just one in five (20%) back in 2008". The report went on, "over half (53%) agree low price is more important than brand name …

We now know that brand names carry no necessary cachet, so the quality option has been nullified anyway.

The pressure for lower prices, compounded by the giant supermarkets’ lust for market share, means lowering costs, which means screwing suppliers and lowering standards on inputs. Ford’s virtuous circle has been converted into a vicious circle.

But what does this all have to do with France, home of the legendary bucolic marchés of the paysans?

Place des Prêcheurs, Aix-en-Provence

But France has a split personality. It has vibrant localised farmers’ markets, but it is also a powerhouse of an industrialised agriculture and industrialised foodstuffs sector — complemented by hypermarkets of unrivalled scale. France’s early insecurity in the construction of the European Union and the associated constraints on national autonomy was mollified by the prospect of dramatically expanding its agricultural and industrialised foodstuffs sectors with exports into a common European market (which transpired).

French ‘green economy’ journalist Fabrice Nicolino, in a 2009 book, claims that meat consumed in France (themselves big meat-eaters) is almost wholly a product of industrialised animal-raising and processing.

But Horsegate has brought out additional dimensions. First, the French inspection regime is far from ideal (Le Canard Enchainé, 20 February). Two regulatory regimes and Ministries, those of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, leave exposed a large gap where it matters — that of all the bits of the animal that are left over, the minerai de viande. The bits are agglomerated from tens of animals, sliced and diced, and reconstituted in the mince, the frozen dinners, etc., with the processors effectively being given open season on processes and end products. (Perhaps Gabriel Gaté could use the forthcoming Tour de France to show us the delights of this side of French cuisine, to be washed down with a glass of Château Plonk.)

Second, the labelling regime is seriously deficient. Que Choisir, arm of the French Consumers’ federation, has recently analysed the contents of numerous plats cuisinés. It turns out that one can’t trust the labeling  which obfuscates and misrepresents the contents, always promising more than is delivered (LCE, 27 February).

Then there is the case of the Loire-based meat processor Castel Viandes, churning out 22,000 tonnes a year. Around 2008, supermarket chain Auchan returned meat suspected of provoking an outbreak of E. coli. Customers of restaurant chain Flunch became violently ill or developed allergies. It appears that Castel had been engaged in repackaging ‘past-its-use-by’ meat with updated labels and extended use-by limits. An internal quality controller raised concerns but was sacked in December 2008 (LCE, 20 February). Belatedly, the gendarmerie has moved in to follow the scent, exhume the rotting corpse and work out whodunnit.

Philippe Mougey, Le Canard Enchainé: I’ve just cooked you some trout – do you prefer the wing or the thigh?

Meanwhile, the French Minister for Social Economy & Consumer Affairs has opined that the aforesaid frozen horse meat lasagnas  etc., currently warehoused in their thousands of tonnes at considerable expense (use-by date in 2014 looming!), might be handed over to charitable organisations for distribution to the indigent. Suitably labelled, of course. Leading from the front, the Minister had earlier opined that he would continue to eat the stuff himself, practical when one returned home late from work. The left-wing Minister for Social Economy & Consumer Affairs may not be aware that he is an exemplary product of his times.

To top it off, the European Commission has recently given the go-ahead for the use of bone meal (farines animales) as feed for pig and poultry raising and fish farming. Mad Cow Disease is under control, says the EC, and there will be no more cannibalism. The fish will be fed the meal of pork and poultry, and so on, in a round robin of industrial genius. More, the label ‘bone meal’, is not sufficiently inclusive. We’re talking PAT (protéines animales tranformées), which includes feathers, blood, hooves/claws and fat as well as bone (LCE, 20 February). The EC also claims that regulation of the network of producers/suppliers will be watertight.

And horses might fly!

Apparently, France has the right to refuse to follow the EC directive. However, the Ecology Minister, Delphine Batho, in spite of national regulator opposition to Brussels, is reported as inclining to rely merely on trust in appropriate labeling.

We are what we eat. Bon appétit!

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