The current furore over horsemeat being found in some processed foods shows the media still likes to create what Stan Cohen (1973) termed a ‘moral panic’. The ‘folk devils’ this time around initially were food processor Farmbox of Aberystwyth and the Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse in Todmorden who, it is alleged, knowingly introduced (unregulated) horsemeat into the British human food chain. Increasingly there is talk of an ‘international criminal conspiracy’ – led by no less than Environment Secretary Owen Paterson who was reported by the Daily Mail’s Tom Kelly (among others) to have said (12 February): “’I'm concerned that this is an international criminal conspiracy here and we’ve really got to get to the bottom of it…. This is a conspiracy against the public. Selling a product as beef, and including a lot of horse in it is fraud.” Kelly goes on to speculate that the Italian and Polish Mafias are behind the operation.
Rightly there are concerns about food hygiene standards not having been adhered to and that there is a risk of dangerous substances entering the human food chain through unregulated meat. The only substance to be identified so far, however, is the veterinary drug phenylbutazone (‘bute’) which was found in less than 4% of horsemeat-contaminated samples taken in the 9 days of 30 January-7 February. As the BBC’s Medical Correspondent Fergus Walsh has written, based on information Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies provided: “In order to get a single therapeutic dose of bute from horsemeat you’d need to eat 500-600 250g horse burgers. That’s an awful lot of meat.”
Walsh goes on to write: “you assume that there is a strong health angle to the horsemeat contamination scandal. The evidence so far would suggest otherwise. This is a food fraud rather than a food safety issue.” Clearly the labelling of some of the foods under scrutiny may have little correlation with what is actually inside the packaging and that substances potentially harmful to humans are entering the food chain – albeit in almost microscopic amounts.
So the ‘Great Horsemeat Scandal’ appears to throw up 2 issues:-
(i) Does the poor regulation of food processing pose a genuine threat to human health?
(ii) Is consumer confidence in meat processing and the labelling of food undermined…and, if so, how can it be restored?
The answer to (i) has to be Not so far but potentially Yes. If – and, to some extent, it is still ‘if’ – regulation of food in and into the UK has been circumvented as easily as it appears to have been by entrepreneurial but relatively low-level criminals, what would happen if an intelligent and well-funded terrorist organisation wanted to infect the human food chain in this country with a deadly bacterial and/or chemical agent…? The results would most likely be catastrophic and scarcely bear thinking about. Thinking about them – and hopefully preventing them – is the job of the Government’s ‘COBRA Committee’, MI6, the police anti-terrorist squads and other pertinent agencies. Preventing such an attack is a considerable task one can only hope the COBRA planners are wised up to.
Point (ii) is a strange one. A number of polls were reported on 18 February – most notably The Herald (Michael Settle, 2013) and The London Evening Standard (Press Association, 2013) – which were remarkably consistent in reporting that around 25% of the sample groups questioned will now buy less processed meat, with a further 15%+ saying they would do so if they could afford to. Around 20% have already started buying less meat per se. Just short of 70% trust food labelling less and a little over 60% will buy more unprocessed meat from local butchers. Of course, these are self-reporting surveys and subject to all the usual caveats about results from this research method. In terms of whether we have a full-scale ‘moral panic’ on our hands in the way Cohen meant when describing media reaction to and manipulation of the ‘Mods vs Rockers’ conflicts that blew up in several English seaside towns in the early 1960s, it’s difficult to conclude from the polls reported. A 25% change in meat shopping habits – assuming it’s both enacted and sustained – is certainly significant and would seem to give the lie to Angela McRobbie & Sarah Thornton’s (1995) contention that the very concept of a ‘moral panic’ is now outdated. Nonetheless, the fact that 75% of people seem to be willing to carry on buying meat as they did before…while being very suspicious of what the label actually specifies…could be said to lend some support to McRobbie &Thornton’s view that the public are just a little too sophisticated nowadays to be taken in in quite the way they used to back in the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s also worth noting that investment in the food retail sector has actually risen since the start of the year, with shares rising 6.2% in total and 1.2% in the week ending 16 February, the worst week of the scandal. (James Davey & Neil Maidment, 2013) Clearly such people are not panicking!
Why don’t we kill folk devils in Britain?
As a sociopsychological commentator, I’m fascinated by the ‘monster story’ the media has created, the public uproar that results and the pressure this puts on politicians to ‘do something about it’ – all classic features of Cohen’s moral panic concept. TV, radio and the internet all attract greater numbers of viewers wanting to learn more – especially if there is a possibility they and their loved ones may be at risk. As for the printed media, they can bask in a boost in newspaper sales – short-lived though the boost may be. Meanwhile pertinent politicians, civil servants and local government officers desperately look for someone else to blame and to be seen to be either doing something about it (if you’re part of the government machine) or harassing Government to do something about it (if part of the opposition).
Moral panics, of course, illustrate the power of certain memes to spread virally, through the media, and infect our schemas. So the issue becomes personal to us: it matters. To borrow from Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs concepts, the lower down the Spiral the vMEME which is engaged by the issue, the more powerful and emotive the response and the more people are likely to be activated to respond. Thus, a scandal about food products consumed by millions touches a BEIGE nerve – it can comprise the evolutionary driver to survive – possible even the evolutionary driver to reproduce.
A BEIGE/PURPLE vMEME harmonic comes into play if we have children of our own or just generally value children. Now, it is not just our own survival which may be compromised but perhaps that of the next generation. There is a risk to the replication and carrying forward of our genes.
Thus, even though the real risk to public health seems very small in the ‘Great Horsemeat Scandal’, it touches upon fundamental (evolutionary) values shared by most people at a very deep emotional level.
In 4Q/8L terms, the BLUE structure and processes of the Lower Right Quadrant that consumers trust in have failed. In Functionalist terms, a vital ‘organ’ of society (the food supply) has been compromised. Thankfully, the failure is small but the hullabaloo is huge, with the media running it as a headline story for over a month now. The ORANGE vMEME of the newspaper and the news programme editors has jumped at the opportunity to sell more newspapers and attract more viewers. However, as noted earlier, while the headlines have got the politicians performing on every news bulletin, either condemning the latest revelation or promising some new action, the response from the general public has been relatively muted. There have been no abattoir owners lynched for putting children at risk; not even a boycott of Tesco or Asda for retailing contaminated food!
But then, apart from a potshot through the window of one of the homes of disgraced ex-NatWest boss Fred Goodwin, no bankers were killed or even assaulted in 2008-2009 – and they were the catalyst for the financial meltdown which did real and lasting damage to the economy of this country which the people will pay for over perhaps the complete decade to come. And this despite the media pillorying bankers on and off for several years!
In some parts of the world, mobs would have formed to kill the folk devils – eg: in Jamaica last year a spate of mob killings of men suspected of child abuse and other sex crimes was reported (Michael Aitken, 2012). But this kind of mob violence against people is a rarity in the modern UK. (Riots damaging property and challenging the police are more common – from the Toxteth and Brixton riots in 1981 through to last Summer’s riots across England.) Perhaps it’s something to do with being ‘British’ – eg: it’s just not ‘cricket’ for a mob to hack a man to death or torch him with a ‘flaming necklace’.
Certainly there seems to be something in the collective psyche that by and large inhibits people from forming vigilante mobs.
And this presents an interesting conundrum in analysing responses to the ‘Great Horsemeat Scandal’. Spiral Dynamics orthodoxy has it that, as Life Conditions in the Environment change (Lower Right Quadrant), so there should be a vMEMETIC adjustment in the collective cultural (Lower Left) and individual psychological (Upper Left). Yet, despite a clear failure of BLUE systems in the Lower Right, there has been little change in the Lower Left or Upper Left. Usually, when BLUE fails, there is a regression to the RED vMEME. Certainly this can be read as a factor in numerous civil conflict situations in the UK, from the Catholic communities in Northern Ireland in 1969 calling for the IRA to protect them when police failed to prevent Protestant gangs burning them out of their houses to the spread of looting riots last Summer when the police were widely perceived as unable to protect property. But, when it comes to mob attacks on individual folk devils, it seems the Brits just don’t do that sort of thing.
It will be interesting to see how the growing ethnic diversity in Britain affects such behaviours in the coming decades.
Resolving the Great Horsemeat Sandal
“The consumer cannot be left to face a Catch-22 where they can either pay for food that complies with the highest standards of traceability, labelling and testing or accept that they cannot trust the provenance and composition of the foods they eat,” Anne McIntosh, cross-party chair of the Commons Food & Rural Affairs Committee, said last week. (Davey & Maidment)
However, the British Government is locked into the European Union Food Information Regulations (2011) which means food and labelling standards could not be lowered legally even if the Government was inclined to do so.
To comply, therefore, there will have to be more tightly-controlled processes carried out, audited and enforced by highly-trained specialists. The BLUE vMEME will naturally drive these processes but getting it right to the perfectionist standards BLUE will aspire to will not be cheap. DNA testing can cost up to £500 per sample. As Peter Garbutt, chief livestock adviser for the National Farmers Union, puts it: “Producing high quality, fully traceable, high welfare standard livestock costs money to put on peoples’ tables.”
According to Davey & Maidment, analysts believe value lines, such as frozen beefburgers or spaghetti bolognese ready-meals, are currently so cheap and profit margins so thin that supermarkets have little room for manoeuvre. That means increased margin pressure for already squeezed suppliers and price rises for consumers.
Neil Saunders of the retail research agency, Conlumino, comments: “I don’t think there’s any way that we can escape the viewpoint that the price of having guaranteed food in terms of it contains what it says it contains is ultimately higher prices. We might be speaking about a couple of pence on an item, because this is a game about volume.”
Davey & Maidment cite market research agency Kantar as stating this will accelerate food price inflation, already running at 4.9% in the 12 weeks to January 20 as a result of high commodity prices.
So the moral panic the media have attempted to create will cost us all dearly. The likelihood is that, as living standards in general have declined since 2008-2009 and, in particular, since the Coalition Government introduced its austerity programme in 2010, paying more for food will come to be accepted by most people as just another element in that decline.
The irony, as Fergus Walsh points out, is in the question: “How many of us have unwittingly eaten horsemeat and how long has the mislabelling of products been going on?” Walsh goes to note: “Horsemeat is popular in mainland Europe, in countries like Italy, France and Belgium. It is a lean meat…widely used overseas to build the strength of patients who were convalescing.”
So, while the labelling should reflect accurately what’s in the packet – and something does need to be done about that – we’re now going to pay higher prices to avoid mistakingly eating a perfectly healthy meat product.
Oh, the power of memes and moral panics!