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

Photo: Getty
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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.