The horseburger scandal started in Ireland and as a meat-eating Irishman I need to confess that I am at least partly responsible. The drama unfolded when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland tested a range of ready meals and beefburgers from a number of supermarkets. These DNA tests found that there was pig meat in 85 per cent of the ‘beef’-burgers and horse meat in 33 per cent. The web of contamination quickly grew to Northern Ireland, England, Holland, France, Romania and it continues to grow . . .
Nowadays meat is traded on a global scale like oil, iron and other ‘commodities’. About a month ago I was about to buy a frozen pizza from my local supermarket when standing in the queue I noticed that the chicken on it came from Thailand. I took it back wondering how on earth we had got to this stage. There are at least 10 farms within a three-mile radius of my house, why am I eating meat from 5,000 miles away?
I’ve heard lots before about food miles, the dangers of processed food and sustainability but I have to admit that it’s only since horsegate that I’ve really stopped to consider my part in this. I voted with my own feet and wallet for cheap and unsustainable meat. I hadn’t stopped to consider the effects of my choices on the animals, local producers or the environment. Meat has not become cheap, it has become cheapened.
I should have known better. I used to work on a farm that raised beef cattle and it was really hard work and the rearing of a calf from suckling to slaughter took several years. Every day of the year there was hard work to be done, producing silage for the cattle to eat, cleaning their sheds out and basic animal husbandry. There was a connection between the animals and the land and the people who reared them. This seems to have been lost not just by me but by millions. How on God’s good earth could all this work and care go into the welfare of these animals for four burgers to be sold at under a £1?
However, horsegate is a great opportunity to bring about change. Food is flavour of the month, almost every other programme on TV is about food and there are even whole channels devoted to it – we are obsessed. The Bible is full of references to food right across the Testaments. It’s celebrated as a blessing and gift from God and there’s a strong narrative of justice and jubilee economics when it comes to food and its connection to the land. From God providing manna in the wilderness under a system where nobody can accumulate right through to the prophets railing against the rich who were robbing the poor of their land and ability to work and produce food.
When talking about food in this context we raise huge issues of world trade, poverty, hunger and deprivation. Right now in the world around 13 per cent of people are hungry while 20 per cent are overweight or obese. Locally and across the UK new food banks are opening every week and for many there is simply no choice when it comes to the food we eat. This is the sad reality. The complicated chain of food processing relationships that horsegate has exposed will not be changed overnight. The unholy disconnect between the farm and the fork has taken place slowly over many years. It will take time and a new intentionality to be redeemed.
So this is not a call to eat trendy and expensive organic food, to raise your own flocks or to become a vegan. Rather, I’m simply asking, what would it look like if followers of Christ began pay more attention to where we source our food? What if this movement already pioneered by the few became the mainstream in our churches? Not legalistically but in a way that encourages careful consideration of the value of food beyond its price. Perhaps we may find that we cannot afford to eat meat every day. Perhaps we will re-discover the real cost and true worth of meat. This scandal asks huge questions of all of us. As children of God with a creation mandate to rule well over the earth, can we continue to blindly accept the food on the shops’ shelves? Imagine the witness to those around us if we extend our understanding of integrity and God’s kingdom living to what we eat and more broadly what we consume.
David Smyth is Public Policy Officer with Evangelical Alliance (NI). This is an abridged version of an article which was first posted on the EA (NI) website and is used with permission.