The horsemeat scandal, alone amongst food scares, is not about health. Why the hell is it so huge?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Over the weekend I caught up with an American cousin. His questions started out friendly enough, but when I confessed that I was “still a journalist”, they took a turn for the patronising. “I’ve been in England two weeks now and every time I switch on the news it’s just horse meat, horse meat, horse meat,” he said. “Does nothing happen in this country?”

Nothing does, but even I can see that our media’s horsemeat content is nigh on indigestible at the moment. The industry reaction has been huge too. Tesco has dropped €360m in market value. European leaders have called emergency meetings in Brussels. Now, large-scale (in other words, extremely expensive) DNA testing is being talked about.

What makes the scale of this food scare particularly odd is that it isn’t even a health scare. All our previous food scares have been: BSE, salmonella, listeria. This one is mostly about surprise. Looks like beef, tastes like beef, sold as beef, actually horse(!) (Let’s ignore the murmurings about bute, by the way, the horse analgesic that “may” have entered the food chain. Even if treated horses had ended up in some burgers the estimated dose would be too low to have any effects, and as the drug is used therapeutically in human beings anyway, the effects would be fairly innocuous.)

No: the scale of the reaction here, I’d argue, is all about BSE – another food scandal involving dangerous cost-cutting, regulatory failures and beef - but that time with fatal consequences. An important difference, you might think - yet almost every comment piece on the recent scandal has linked the two. Google “BSE horsemeat”, for example, and you get 182,000 results. BSE is Horsegate’s nearest relation and the scale of that crisis is dictating this one.

Our mistake here is an example of “anchoring”, taking an early piece of information and leaning on it too heavily as a reference point. We’re all vulnerable to the error. Here's how it works: ask someone the following two questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than 144 years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

..and now ask someone else these questions:

1)Was Gandhi more or less than nine years old when he died?

2)How old was Gandhi when he died?

Absurd as the two openers are, they will still affect the answers you get. In group testing, the first questions had Gandhi die at an average age of 50 and the second at an average age of 67.

The trick is simple and effective but can also be dangerous, and when reacting to a developing crisis we are particularly susceptible, as with limited information available we cling all the harder to what we have.

In July 2011, when a bomb went off in Oslo, the world’s media instantly assumed that it was a work of jihadist terror, before the real identity of the perpetrator – the far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik –was revealed. Nearly a year later, when a killer went on the rampage in France, the same media outlets pointed the finger at the far right until they discovered the murderer was an Islamist named Mohamed Merah.

We can’t avoid such mistakes entirely, but we can deal with them if we know they can happen. As panic starts to die down, we must reassess our evidence and start to piece together the real story.

Horsemeat: less about health than surprise. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.