First it was horseburgers, then horsemeat lasagna. Now comes news that possible horsemeat contamination has caused the Swedish furniture giant Ikea to stop the sale of frozen packages of its famous Kottbullar meatballs in 14 European countries.
The action followed reports from authorities in the Czech Republic that the company’s meatballs tested positive for horse DNA. “Our own checks have shown no traces of horsemeat,” Ikea said in a press release issued today, but the decision was made to halt sales of the “concerned batch” in order for additional testing to be conducted.
Horse meatballs are an inherently bad idea—the animal is too lean to simmer in a sauce without it drying out or turning mealy (pork-horse meatballs? That would work beautifully). But in terms of the so-called scandal, horse isn’t the problem. As many have commented in light of the growing horsemeat issue, we probably should eat horse. Certainly, horse slaughter shouldn’t be so taboo that it’s outsourced to abattoirs in countries where safety and accountability standards may be more lax.
No, what’s truly scandalous here isn’t the fact that Europeans may be eating horse—it’s that they wouldn’t be doing so willfully. Ikea’s web of supply chains, production and trade is so vast that a “batch” of meatballs—1,672 pounds—is enough to stock shelves in nearly half of the countries in the E.U. Granted, meatballs are rarely cooked in small quantities—no matter if they’re flavored with all spice and cooked in beef gravy or seasoned with garlic and parsley and simmered in tomato sauce—but this kind of scale has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with lowering costs.
The globalized nature of Ikea, which has been outsourcing manufacturing since the 1950s, and has factories around the globe, is a model of business success when told as the tale of a piece of furniture. As Lauren Collins wrote in her 2011 New Yorker story about the company, “ The LACK table is one of those commodities, like salt or cod, through which one could tell the story of the world.” Inexpensive materials, smart (if not infuriating) design, international manufacturing, and packaging that leaves no space wasted have made it and similar furniture items iconic.
But the exact makeup of the ground wood and paper that fill the laminated surface of an Ikea tabletop are of far less concern to shoppers and regulators than what type of ground meat its Kottbullar are formed from. We expect composite materials masquerading as “wood” from Ikea. The beef meatballs, however, should really just be beef.