Diets change in times of strife. Scraps that might be tossed away in less frugal days are looked upon as a meal in their own right. Weeds are sustenance, bread is puffed up with the otherwise inedible. And in the worst-case scenario, the family pet might have to become the next family meal.
In cultures where eating dogs or horse is taboo, desperation can bring about such a transgression. But it appears that globalization has changed the diet of austerity: Now the poor are selling the meat of horses owned by the previously, fleetingly rich, feeding the unwitting middle-class of an entire continent with equine-tainted meat.
While covering Europe’s horsemeat scandal earlier this year, I repeatedly wrote that the scandalous aspect of the whole mess wasn’t that people were eating horse, but that they were doing so without having chosen to eat horse. With international chains like Taco Bell and Ikea caught up in the affair, it appeared to be a story of globalization, of a supply chain so long, so complex, that two distinctly different animals couldn’t be kept separate after being run through the machine of global capitalism.
Turns out, I was wrong—the affair was about globalization, but in a very different way.
A radio story that ran last week on NPR member station KCRW, as part of its Independent Producer Project, offers a compelling, fascinating explanation to the how of the horsemeat scandal. Turns out, the various instances of tainted meat had nothing to do with unscrupulous Polish abattoirs. The horsemeat scandal is in fact another entry in what’s proving to be a very depressing genre—it’s a tale of desperation caused by the crushing austerity measures brought against residents of countries whose monetary policy contributed to the Euro Zone crisis—countries like Greece, Spain, and Ireland.
Remember Brad Pitt’s character from the Guy Ritchie film Snatch? The bare-knuckle boxer with the tattoos and the incomprehensible accent? Mickey O’Neil was a Traveller, a member of a nomadic ethnic group that’s despised by much of Irish society. After the economy crashed in 2008, austerity measures ended social programs geared at Travellers, such as after-school boxing clubs.
At the other end of Irealand’s socio-economic spectrum were the nouveau riche, for whom owning horses was a status symbol. After the country’s booming economy collapsed, these people couldn’t afford the upkeep for their stables—never mind their mortgages. Mares and stallions were turned loose, left to fend for themselves in the countryside.
Reporter and producer John Sepulvado’s story of how the Great Recession, and the age of austerity that followed, brought about a homegrown, thoroughly Irish horsemeat scandal is so fascinating that I won’t reveal the link between Travellers and feral horses here. But it’s a story that once again raises questions over the logic of severe budget cutting in the wake of economic calamity. A budget may clearly outline how healthcare, pensions, social programs and food aid, for example, are being cut, but it can’t account for the wide, sometimes weird fallout of austerity. There are myriad hidden costs, and in the case of Ireland and Europe, one of those has been horseburgers.