Public perceptions of the Meatgate scandal

By Issac Turner

Ethical reactions to the supermarket horsemeat incident 

It’s Meatgate. Burgers being sold in Tesco, Iceland, Lidl and Aldi have been found to contain traces of horsemeat in quantities of up to 30%, a damning revelation for four of the ‘big ten’ leaders in the mass-market food industry.

The social significance of this fact is clear if we consider the fact that Tesco have resorted to publishing large advertisements in several national newspapers apologising for their unfortunate involvement in what, to the boardroom, must seem like a crisis for maintaining profit margins and consumer faith.

In Britain, we are evidently ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ at the inclusion of an animal that is generally seen as socially unacceptable to eat, but in countries such as France, the scientifically damning findings dominating headlines over here would hardly make page thirty of a regional paper.

This draws up an interesting dilemma for the United Kingdom: why exactly are we revolted by the findings?

It could be because we feel cheated by supermarkets that originally had our faith and loyalty. In an age of weak industrial responsibility and public vitriol at other powerful institutions such as Northern Rock and Goldman Sachs, it was perhaps the duty of Tesco, Aldi and so forth to promote more sound ethical practices and a regular control over the content of the foodstuffs they sourced from external outlets.

Alternatively, could it be more that we may have consumed the products in question? This interpretation is less about corporate responsibility and more about social norms. The supermarkets in question have breached societal practices that we as British consumers abide by in their ‘acceptance’ of horsemeat as a valid part of burgers, unintentional though it may have been. Thus, this argument goes beyond mere ‘disappointment’ in the industry, to actual personal disgust. This is where it can get dangerous; when ethical arguments become a direct issue for citizens, they are more likely to take a polarised opposition to the guilty parties.

Naturally, different individuals will have alternating philosophies when it comes to the crux of the situation, and it is likely that many of us will feel a mixture of the two scenarios I have outlined above. But what can the supermarkets do now to win back our trust?

Tesco have taken the first step in issuing a public apology. This is something that characters such as Rupert Murdoch, and even Tony Blair, have been much more reluctant to do, yet in their powerful appeal to the nation Tesco have managed to begin a dialogue of empathetic and sorrowful language. This is the main action that needs to be implemented across the board.

Another solution is scapegoating. The public need someone to blame- it’s inherent in human nature. If the issue escalates it is likely that the original source of the burgers, the ABP Food Group, will face the brunt of the scrutiny as questions from industry and media are directed at considerations such as honesty, business practices and even possibly legal repercussions- for the more sensational papers.

Whatever the outcome of Meatgate, it is likely that the widest theme that will emerge is the continuation of public dissatisfaction with globalised chains such as Lidl. The mass-market experiment is one that has taken fifty years to come full circle. If we can’t even trust in our most valued retail institutions, where does that leave a nation built on dubiously ethical commercial motives?

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