The horse meat scandal that exploded in Europe earlier this year continues to be a public relations fiasco, having sent supermarkets into a recall frenzy and forcing governmental food safety agencies to take a closer look at what citizens are putting into their stomachs. There’s nothing dangerous about ingesting horse meat per se, but finding that 23 out of 27 “beef” burgers sold on supermarket shelves contain significant amounts of non-bovine meat—including one product made up of 29.1% horse meat—would make anyone uneasy (those were the results of the analysis that sparked the outcry, carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland).
Over the past two months, more such cases have come to light from all over Europe. One scheme identifies an intricate sourcing chain for the horse meat found in ready-made lasagnas that traverses France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Romania. During the trial of the Dutch meat trader responsible for falsely labeling Romanian horse meat as beef, it was even discovered that he had also been selling South American and Mexican horse meat re-labelled as Dutch and German beef as far back as 2007.
And given the murkiness of food supply chains here in the U.S., goodness knows what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would find if it started digging around on American supermarket shelves.
There’s something scary about not knowing where one’s food comes from. This latest scandal merely exposes the lack of transparency and accountability that has unfortunately become endemic to the over-complexified food system that food companies and governments have helped to construct over the past few decades. The extensive consolidation of the agricultural industry is well-documented in books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter, as Pollan and Hauter go to great lengths to trace the food we eat from farm (or more realistically from lab, or factory, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) to plate.
Underlying all of these changes in the food supply system is a deeper, more insidious cultural shift. As our fast-paced lifestyles lead us to value convenience over sustainability and the persistent economic impoverishment of the majority of Americans leads them to value cheap food over quality nutrition, it comes as no surprise that we’ve allowed ourselves to become so disconnected from that which fulfills our most basic human need of nourishment. Indeed, this phenomenon fits into the bigger picture of an overdeveloped society that has lost touch with what it means to lead healthy lives within planetary boundaries.
So what to do? In order to increase the transparency and sustainability of our food system, we probably have to start by shortening supply chains and localizing food sourcing.
The Nordic countries have come up with their own solution: the New Nordic Food movement. Spearheaded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and well-known Scandinavian chefs, the movement promises a new approach to a sustainable regional kitchen.
Instead of looking to import both ingredients and traditions from around the world, as has happened in lots of places thanks to an increasingly globalized food culture, the New Nordic Food movement advocates looking within the borders of the Nordic region to construct a cuisine that reinvigorates traditional Nordic ingredients and emphasizes localized, artisanal food production. The emphasis on sustainability is clear, too. As the movement’s manifesto plainly states, New Nordic Food is about self-sufficiency and embracing the wealth provided by the regional environment—that includes cooking and eating according to the seasons.
Most importantly, the New Nordic Food movement is about democratizing the benefits that come from healthy eating. Though it certainly has its elite high-cuisine contingent on the international culinary stage, the movement is more fundamentally about disseminating this way of eating among ordinary Nordic citizens. Through promotion of local food in institutions like hospitals and schools, Nordic countries seek to reach the public with their message of health and sustainability. Public meals for schoolchildren, for example, are being targeted as vehicles for promoting better eating habits. The intention is that a different way of eating will then resonate into Nordic homes, and effect a cultural transformation that will benefit local environments and economies.
As the Nordic experience seeks to show, there is hope for a reform of our broken food system. There, public officials have realized that there is a problem and have taken action to fix it. But is this a plausible avenue of change for the U.S. food system, given the huge stakes that big agricultural and petrochemical interests have in government? (For an example, look no further than President Obama’s recent signing of the “Farmer Assurance Provision” as part of the American government’s 2013 spending bill, HR933. Dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by opponents, this rider embedded in the continuing resolution inhibits federal courts from being able to rule against the sale or planting of GMO seed regardless of any health or environmental concerns that may be brought against GMOs in the future.)
To prevent our own version of a horse meat scandal—or worse— it’s clear that popular, grassroots reform of the system is needed. This certainly includes organizing for top-down policy changes, but it also involves more than that: spreading the word about changing the way we view food. And in the growing popularity of farmer’s markets and locally-sourced fresh foods among various American social classes, even though we have a long way to go to achieve true sustainability in our food system, at least the seeds of a new system are starting to be sown.