Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Horse-meat and SNAP: some thoughts

Last year's horse-meat scandal in the European Union and this year's arguments over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the US seem to have raised some similarities in the commentary around them.
If you don't remember, during spring 2013, British supermarkets discovered that some of the low-priced foods they were selling had been manufactured with horse meat instead of beef. Subsequent investigation showed that the ground cow purchased by the food manufacturers (a bizarre phrase, to say the least) had been ground horse. The horse had been sourced from yet another country or two (primarily Poland and Roumania), where the packers had substituted the cheaper horse for the more expensive cow.
 Horse-meat isn't a bad thing to eat, nor did anyone try to frame it that way. In fact, horse is probably better for you than cow. Nor does it taste bad—it's eaten regularly in many cultures and countries. The problem was two-fold: First, that the presence of horse-meat was non-transparent. Consumers did not know what they were eating, and thus the use of horse-meat constituted a fraud on the buying public. Second, there was no certainty as to the quality of the horse-meat used. Horses are often treated for inflammation with a drug called phenylbutazone, which can remain in the meat and can cause severe adverse effects in humans such as suppression of white blood cell production and aplastic anemia when consumed.
This year in the US, there was a concerted push to get a new Farm Bill passed. The bill is a massive list of subsidies to industrial food producers, and also includes the SNAP programme (formerly known as the food stamp programme, a financial supplement for low income Americans). SNAP has long been a contentious programme, and this year was no exception. SNAP benefit redemption was expanded to include CSAs, non-profits, community health organizations, farmer's markets, and the like. This was an expansion of farm subsidies from industrial food production to local food production, and at the same time, provide incentives to SNAP participants to purchase more fresh fruits, vegetables, food-producing plants, and other farmers’ market items. Pioneered in Maryland, NYC, and California, the expanded SNAP programme actually provided cash incentives when these items were purchased.
But the new expansion of benefits wasn't made easy: Congress would provide $100M US in grants to participating organizations, but failed to specify the rules under which the grants would be made. And then, under intense GOP pressure, $800M US was cut from the SNAP programme. Considering the programme has 47 million participants with $80B US/yr. funding, the amount of money available through the grant/expansion changes manages to be less than $0.50 per participant.
It's interesting that the people most affected by both of these occurrences are the poorer members of each society. There is a strong class-related element to public discussion of the people affected. In the UK, the food industry is blamed, but so too are the poor who were the target market for the food. Comments like “Honestly, what do these people expect? If you’re paying £1 for twenty burgers, you can’t expect prime beef!” put a degree of blame on the purchasers of the food, regardless of the fraud and opacity of the food system. After all, the consumers were entitled to expect beef, as that's what the label promised. Even though it may have low quality cuts minced, and been stretched out with mechanically separated beef (“pink slime”) and cellulose (a common adulterant in hamburger patties).
In the US, the expansion of food suppliers eligible to redeem SNAP benefits was a great leap forward in acknowledging that “they”, the poor, the underpaid, the disadvantaged, could in fact be trusted with making reasonable decisions about what they buy and eat. But the requirement for grants and the cutting of $80M of benefits made certain that the other “they”, those who don't buy into the industrial food system like small-holders, would find it difficult if not impossible to access the local food subsidy.
But in both cases, “they” look an awful lot like “us”. Instead of “what do these people expect? If you’re paying £1 for twenty burgers, you can’t expect prime beef!” , perhaps the question we should be asking is “why are people forced to buy such crap food?” In the case of the US, perhaps the question should be “why are we subsidizing industrial food at all?”
Both these questions bring up the need for a different analysis concentrating on the power and influence of industrial food and the failings of the current economic system (a system that likes to conflate “neo-liberal capitalism”—an economic system—with “democracy”—a political system).

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