Despite the initial disbelief and outpouring of disgust accompanying the horsemeat scandal, which had many commentators and experts predicting we would see a fall in meat consumption, the British public’s attitude to eating meat has remained largely unchanged.
This has dismayed many vegans and ethically-minded vegetarians who hoped the scandal would result in a much needed re-evaluation of ours, and the world’s, food security. Our reliance on animals in the food chain is very wasteful, they claim, as feeding animals takes up a large amount of the world’s grain. One estimate accounts 97% of the world’s soya crop is fed to livestock and it is also claimed the world’s cattle consumes enough food to sustain nine billion people – the world’s predicted population by 2050.
But despite the revelations this year that large amounts of meat consumed in the UK contained horsemeat, people in Britain do not seem to care.
A strong majority (81%), of the UK population responded in a YouGov survey that the horsemeat scandal has not made them change their shopping habits, compared to one in five who say it has.
Of those that have changed their shopping habits following the horsemeat scandal, 58% claim they have stopped buying processed meat supplies altogether while a third say they have stopped buying cheap or value range meat products and have switched to buying expensive processed meat instead. But remember – those people only accounted for just 19% of the whole population.
It has not harmed the British public’s perception of our supermarket brands either. Only 12% say they have changed the supermarket they shop at while one in ten have changed the brand of processed meat they buy.
Whenever a scandal like this hits Britain, people love to play the blame game. But supermarkets, despite being slap bang in the centre of the media’s anguish, they have largely escaped the wrath of the British public. Just 10% think supermarkets are to blame for the horsemeat scandal.
It is the processing companies which are taking most of the flak, with half of the population blaming them. 20% attribute the crisis to food manufacturing companies, 8% to the Food Standards Agency, 3% somehow think it was the government’s fault, 9% have yet to make their mind up whereas 1% think no one is to blame.
Supermarkets took a bit more of a hit when it came to whether they should have been more honest about the scandal. 43% of those surveyed believe they have not been open and honest with customers, compared with 47% who say they have been.
But when it comes to labelling, the British public suddenly are in uproar. A majority of the population (53%) say they are no longer confident they know what is in the food they eat, while 43% say they are confident and 3% are unsure.
If you read the papers, though, you would have thought the vast amount of the public would never lay an eye on piece of meat ever again, such was the uproar reported by not only the tabloids but throughout the broadsheet press too. This was, according to the British press, a sea changing moment in our carnivore-eating lifestyles, an epiphany that vegans across the country have been waiting for all their lives. It was as if they had planted the horsemeat in the food themselves, only for it the British public to say: ‘mmm, wouldn’t mind a bit of horsemeat in our steaks, but as long as you tell us it’s in there.’
The scandal dominated the front pages of papers for over a week, until Oscar Pistorious replaced them. The Daily Star urged its readers to buy their meat from local butchers, while the Sunday Mirror’s star columnist John Prescott, who must have eaten many horse-infected burgers in his time, blamed the scandal on the dominance of supermarkets and their “relentless obsession to drive down the cost of goods.”
Newspapers battled for days and days over which exclusive they could break on the scandal next, with the Daily Mail dragging Burger King into the mire, the Daily Mirror publishing a horrifying photo on their front page of the men in blood-stained overalls butchering horse meat in a Welsh meat plant with such disdain for health and safety that the FSA shut it down half an hour after the photo was taken.
The Times splashed on the huge drop in sales of own-brand frozen burgers, a story that was far from deserving of a front page and including figures that were two weeks later shown to be a short-term overreaction by the public. But did they follow up on that? No, there were other, more sensationalist stories to report.
The Guardian tried their best to show how the scandal had driven people away from meat. “Horsemeat scandal sparks rise in sales of vegetarian alternatives”, one headline read in the paper, basing their reports on information they garnered from Quorn, the UK’s biggest vegetarian ready meal brand. How surprising that a vegetarian company spun their figures to show their apparent growth in popularity, which the Guardian decided to favour over the much more scientific research conducted by YouGov just a week earlier which discounted all the sensational stories of dramatic changes in our consumer habits.
The papers went on and on, venturing much further than their readers cared, misunderstanding the British public’s outrage over the scandal.
In fact they misinterpreted public opinion so wrongly that very few national papers picked up on the surprisingly high number of stories of pubs and butchers receiving a significant increase in the demand for horsemeat! Many pubs across London were clever enough to guess this change in the British public’s taste buds and took advantage by selling special horse meat burgers. One pub in Hackney – the Three Compasses on Dalston Lane, sold 50 burgers within the first three hours of introducing it to their menu and underestimated the burgers’ popularity so much that they quickly sold out.
So despite the media portraying it otherwise, it appears as though the vast majority of the British public do not care if the meat they consume contains horsemeat, just as long as the labels mention it, which begs the question of who the hell looks at labels when they are doing their weekly shop?