“And then she’s salami.”
As events of recent weeks have shown, Stela and her kin may also become frozen lasagna, ultra-cheap beefburgers or the sort of meatballs that harassed, cost-conscious parents feed their kids.
The appearance of horsemeat in food purporting to be beef across Europe has sparked an outcry and triggered a blame game among politicians, the food industry and supermarkets. Tons of ready meals and burgers have been pulled off store shelves and junked; shoppers are switching over to less-processed foodstuffs and vegetarian options.
Like Stela, much of our food starts life in a field. Yet this first link in the complex food chain is itself horribly fragmented: The world has more farmers than anything else. Thus, while multinational manufacturers and retailers like to make much of their willingness to don Wellingtons and get down on the farm — fast-food chain McDonald’s even devoted a global ad campaign to the subject — visits and checks are extremely sporadic.
And regardless of whether an animal’s early life is bucolic bliss or concrete dystopia, it will nearly always end in a slaughterhouse.
Abattoirs have changed in recent years — like other parts of the food chain, there are fewer of them and they are more efficient — but some things are constant. Margins are thin as a membrane and they require big, expensive equipment. “The kit you need to chop up chunks of meat is massive and soaks up a lot of energy,” said one former executive from the trade. “It’s not what you want in the kitchen.”
And yet that is precisely where abattoirs have been migrating over the past decade or so, he adds. The tight profit margins leave scant room for added costs such as transport and loading, so processing units are increasingly attached or nearby, even if separately owned. “Traveling a hundred miles there and back, and double-handling of carcasses — these are things abattoirs cannot afford.”
If animals go in through these less-than-pearly gates, they exit as what Professor Karel Williams, an expert on food supply chains at Manchester Business School, calls “deconstructed Euro-animals.”
Different parts are whizzed around the globe. The so-called “fifth quarter,” comprising offal, feet and other parts considered unappetizing in much of Europe, is increasingly going to China.
But the bulk goes to retailers and processors across Europe, either as cuts or as containers of minced meat. Explaining the difficulty of testing at this stage, one former worker depicts the scene. “You’ve got a block of frozen mush that’s maybe two-feet-by-two-feet-by-three-feet, and you’re standing in minus 10 degrees temperature. People who know say you can tell the difference [between horsemeat and beef] by looking. But in these conditions?”