Before I left for my study abroad trip in Rome during college, I looked in the mirror and made myself a promise: I wasn't going to eat any food from an American franchise. What would be the point of going out of the country to experience another culture if I was just going to maintain the same diet I had while living in the Midwest, I thought. And I'm proud to say that for a full month-and-a-half, I kept my promise and only ate at local restaurants. Problem was, I was there for a full semester.
After that initial 45 days in a strange country, I craved something familiar, so I went to McDonald's and got myself a burger. I wasn't proud of myself, but I didn't care. The comfort found in fast food isn't about taste or quality, but familiarity, the fact that you can theoretically bite into a Burger King double cheeseburger in L.A. and it will contain the same beefy goodness a double cheeseburger in Rome has.
Except, well, not at all.
Last week it was reported that the burgers sold by Burger King in Ireland and Britain were testing positive for equine DNA. To the layperson, that means horse meat. Meat sold in certain grocery stores was also contaminated. First, the country's Food Safety Authority was finding alleged "beef" with 29% horse meat. Then, they started finding "beef" with 75% horse. Then, 80%. Ultimately, some frozen lasagnas contained 100% horse.
Recalls and apologies have been issued, firings and fines are on the way. But then a new, even more troubling, bit of information surfaced: All that horse meat might actually be donkey meat.
The reasoning for such thinking is one-part legislative, one-part history. You see, the meat sold in Britain and Ireland took a bit of a circuitous route to get there. Before landing in the United Kingdom, it was in a French-owned factory in Luxembourg. Before then, the south of France. And Holland. And Cyprus. Until you get to the true originator of the meat, the country of Romania. And Romania has had some notable recent changes to their laws:
Horse-drawn carts were a common form of transport for centuries in Romania, but hundreds of thousands of the animals are feared to have been sent to the abattoir after the change in road rules. The law, which was passed six years ago but only enforced recently, also banned carts drawn by donkeys, leading to speculation among food-industry officials in France that some of the "horse meat" which has turned up on supermarket shelves in Britain, France and Sweden may, in fact, turn out to be donkey meat.
Now, before anyone gets on their high-horse (or high-donkey, at it were) about it not being a big deal what kind of meat is being eaten -- eating a cow is the same as eating a horse is the same as eating a donkey -- let me derail that line of thinking right away. The whole point of this story is not that different cultures have different hierarchies of what animals are acceptable to devour. This is, instead, a glaring warning sign about the failure to label food properly.
This issue goes beyond meat. How do we know if something vegetarian doesn't have meat in it without a proper label? How do we know if something has nuts we're allergic to? How can we know if there are GMOs in our food if you don't give them a label?
And if you think mislabeling is an "overseas" phenomenon, that this certainly can't happen here, know that America is certainly not immune to errors. Seafood, particularly, has had a notorious history, with three straight years of mislabeling scandals. And a few years ago, overseas American troops were given mislabeled food from a Texas contractor. So this kind of thing does happen here.
But beyond that is simply the fact that we live in an interconnected world. Scroll back up and look again at the route the meat took from Romania before landing in Britain and Ireland. That kind of Byzantine structure has become the norm. This is the scary side of globalization. It's no longer that it could happen here. It's that if it happened anywhere, it may already be on the way.