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February 18, 2013, Monday

We are what we eat

The numbers never added up. Anyone trying to compare the price of a decent cut of beef these days anywhere across Europe and indeed in Turkey would have realized that value burgers sold in packs of eight or 10 for 1 pound sterling -- about TL 3 -- could not contain much actual beef. But until the horsemeat scandal erupted in Ireland and the UK and later spread throughout most of the Europe, many consumers opted not to look too closely at the list of ingredients on the cheap burgers or processed food they consumed.

Turkey, so far, seems to have been spared by this particular affair, but it's had food mishaps of its own in the past. Most Britons are filled with horror at the thought of consuming horsemeat and pious Muslims or Jews worry about inadvertently eating pork. The scandal is first and foremost about the fraudulent labeling of food products, which were found to contain horsemeat and pork when they were supposed to be made of beef only.

But beyond the investigation into criminal activity that is currently under way, the whole story should encourage us all to take a closer look at the food that ends up on our plates and how it got there. In this particular case, the contamination appears to pose a limited risk for consumers' health, although small amounts of phenylbutazone, known as bute, a drug routinely administered to race horses, was found in some of the food products recently checked.

But with much of supermarket meat consumed across Europe now processed on a huge scale and secured through a hugely complex supply chain, it is only a matter of time until more serious problems emerge. The food industry is increasingly in the hands of a few giant players and governments' ability or willingness to carry out inspections to check that regulations are correctly implemented appears limited. Expecting the industry to regulate itself when supermarkets are competing to keep prices at the lowest levels seems wishful thinking. As contaminated products were withdrawn from stores in several countries and investigators sought to track the source of the problem, it emerged that the meat in frozen burgers and ready meals involved suppliers and dealers in a long supply chain that criss-crossed the continent.

Who is to blame? Government inspectors, the EU, the suppliers, the supermarkets or the consumers? Perhaps all of the above. Most consumers, happy to eat cheap and satisfying food, stick to the notion that meat comes from cows that were until recently happily grazing in green pastures, preferring to ignore the industrial conditions under which it is produced. Standard burgers, according to EU regulations, may contain less than 50 percent beef, boosted by water, fat and other binding agents.

There was a time, not so long ago, when meat was eaten on special occasions in most ordinary European families. Today, unless vegetarian by choice, most middle class people expect meat to feature on their daily menu. In emerging nations, too, demand for red meat has surged. At the same time, the pressures of urban life and budget constraints are also boosting consumption of ready meals or cheap fast food, which contributes to the current obesity epidemic. Turkey remains below the OECD average on that front, but here too food consumption trends are changing rapidly.

Eating less red meat, but meat bought from a secure local source, would not only benefit our health, but also that of our overstretched planet. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) has just published a new report urging the world to decrease meat consumption by half, pointing out that the vast quantities of grain, fertilizers and pesticides needed to support its production are destroying the natural world and putting human health at risk.

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