Division of Labour: food, accountability and class


We’ve all watched the horse meat scandal with some horror, worried what the revelations of the food industry means for what we’ve eaten. Commenting on this, Jay Rayner noted,

…lurking behind the important questions that it posed … there was another narrative, dripping with snobbery and disdain: about the “lower orders” being both stupid enough to buy this cheap crap and unsophisticated enough not to recognise that eating horse is fine…

A friend challenged this interpretation, suggesting that “people chose to become lazy and disconnect from the food they buy and the supply chain that provides it.” I questioned whether this was an individual or group phenomenon, and said I’d expand my thinking further. So here goes.

Back in the “good old days”, when caves featured in Ideal Homes and fire was one of those ideas which got young people excited, humans had a very simple relationship with their food. We picked berries and nuts, dug up roots and cut leaves and grains and then we ate them. We caught fish and bugs and used them to supplement our diets. Sometimes, we cooperated with other local cave dwellers to hunt the local large animals. We all did a bit of everything, and we all knew where our food came from because we were all involved in its production at every stage. Simples.

Moving forward a few thousand years and we got so good at growing grains and fruits, and herding animals, that instead of moving around to preserve resources in an area, we’d started to settle. We grew everything ourselves, and killed the pig ourselves and cooked it ourselves, not as a tribal group anymore, but as individual family households. But still, the food supply chain was short: garden, fire, plate.

Move forward another few thousand years and we’ve got really good at growing them crops; we’ve even managed to turn the meagre – and even toxic – original forms into highly productive, nutritious varieties which are relatively pest resistant, so we can grow more in less space.

This changes the dynamic: so efficient is our farming that it no longer requires everyone in the community to spend their time working the fields and herding the animals. This relative glut of food releases people to start specialising: suddenly, bakers start making bread and butchers start killing animals and curing the meats. People in the new professions, such as carpentry, iron work or weaving, have to rely on food producers for their food. Trust becomes vital in this type of economy, and rules on the purity of food stuffs become very important. For example, cutting flour with chalk, sand and heavy metals becomes a major breaches of social norms and strict punishments are enacted. We’ve moved from producing our own foods to a two- or three-step supply chain (farmer, miller, baker, consumer or farmer, butcher, consumer) in which the origin of ingredients is obscured from the consumer.

Move to today, and we have further elongated our supply chain: farmer, wholesaler, miller, wholesaler, baker, distributor, consumer. Or farmer, butcher, processor, wholesaler, retailer, consumer. Regardless, long supply chains are the norm in a society in which we prize maximising the value at every stage of the chain; the production and consumption of food is completely divorced.

This is complicated by the relative amount of resource we commit to food: the amount we spend per week has
reduced substantially in the last 30 years
and will likely continue falling. Whilst pressure from the retailers can push production prices down through efficiency, this can only go so far. The only option is to make the supply go further: thus we blast remnants off carcasses using pressure hoses to get a couple more pennies resale value out of every animal. It can even further extend the supply chain, reducing the visibility of production further.

Where resources are an issue – living in poverty, schools, hospitals, prisons – these apparently cheaper products are essential to stretching a limited budget further. Whilst it may be cheaper to purchase veg and prepare it oneself, the cultural expectation is that meat is included in at least the main meal, and that the days of cooking on the kitchen are in the past. After all, cookery shows on TV these days are pitched at people who can afford high quality and exotic ingredients and who can afford to spend time preparing food (even Nigella’s “quick” recipes take some time; Jamie’s “thirty minute meals” take much more than thirty minutes in the real world). When you’ve worked an 8-12 hours day, why would you want to spend time in the kitchen as well? (I say this as a middle-income (un)professional who loves cooking but frequently can’t be asked after a long day at work.) Why should those with the least money be expected to pay a greater proportion of their income on essentials than those of us who can afford to?

So, for me, the horse meat affair is significantly about social background, and about class. The issue is that this is about the food not being what it says it is. The sneering comments of, “we’ll, if you’re paying £small for a large number of burgers, of course it’s not going to be beef,” dismisses the essential relationship of trust that the consumer must have with their food producer. For thousands of years, this relationship has been strictly enforced.

By dismissing the concerns of the affected consumers, we are essentially saying that it’s OK for food manufacturers to deceive – deliberately or through ignorance – this particular group of customers because they shouldn’t expect better. At the same time, these are the very people being criticised for being obese and not eating healthily. The foods which have the greatest nutritional value and cause the least harm are also the foods with the shortest supply chains, and therefore the products which there is the least incentive to market effectively; after all, there’s more profit in other products.

We cannot blame individuals living today for the ways in which division of labour and lengthening supply chains has resulted in the least healthy foods have the greatest consumption incentives for those with the least resources. Arguing that people living in poverty should spend more time and money on what they eat is missing the point of poverty, and further victimises people for circumstances which are beyond their control.

What we should do is hold suppliers to account. Bakers who made and sold contaminated loaves were driven out of their guilds and towns, and it is said that Pharaoh would hang cheating producers in ancient Egypt. Instead of blaming the victims, lets drive the manufacturers and supermarkets out of town, and make them pay out for their errors.

On the plus side, of course, horse is delicious. So there’s that.

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About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

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