Where’s the Beef? Horsemeat, 3D Printing and the End of Food as We Know It
In truth, the great shift in what food is and where it comes from started a long time ago. Already during the great British agricultural revolution, methods of farming were moving to more mechanised means. Systems of production which incorporated several independent stages of supply would eventually become the norm.
Today those practices have become commonplace, though out of sight of the public's eye. This week, it emerged that several more products sold in the British market place have been "contaminated" by horsemeat. Most notably, lasagne dishes produced by Findus were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat in the place of beef.
Subsequently, stakeholders and government ministers have been heard commenting on where the blame for such failures in the food supply chain might lie. How did the system whose roots go so far back, and which has fed us so successfully for so long, develop such a major fault?
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, said, "There has either been gross incompetence in some of these cases or a criminal international conspiracy."
It's interesting to me that Conservative Party politician Paterson should leap to characterise the dissemination of horsemeat into our food chain as a specifically human fault. He suggests two possible explanations: some person has clearly screwed up or, worse, intentionally caused horsemeat to enter the system in order to lower costs.
This may very well be the case. However, as the sense grows that the presence of horsemeat in "beef" products is not isolated, but perhaps even endemic to several industrial supply chains, it is comments like those from Dalton Philips, CEO of Morrisons supermakets, which seem to strike the most resonant chord: "When you introduce complexity, you increase risk. [...] You've gotta know your farmer. You've gotta know where your meat's been processed. Which we [Morrisons] do."
Even if a single individual does turn out to be at fault, the fact is that the system provided no real way of identifying their mistake (or crime).
Over the years, developed nations like Britain have constructed huge (and pan-global) supply chains in order to satisfy the demand for huge quantities of aggregate food products at low prices. For example, a recent BBC documentary series, Welcome to India noted in one episode that there was a large market for animal intestines from India which would go on to be used as casings for "British" sausages. And as investigators unravel the "meat trail", news has broken this morning that some of the horsemeat may have originated from Romanian suppliers.
"We created a giant process to send us beef cheaply and efficiently. But it turns out that it has been sending us bits of horse instead"
The point, really, is that a huge system was constructed of which individuals (both professionals and consumers) struggle to have a comprehensive view or understanding. We created a giant process to send us beef cheaply and efficiently. But it turns out that, disturbingly often, it has been sending us bits of horse instead. The appearance of horsemeat, indeed, could be described as an expression of entropy in this system.
Marketing holds some, if not all, of the blame for massaging consumers with a false sense of security over what processed food really is. The product says "beef" on the label so there is no suggestion that it may contain traces of other species, chemicals and even animal excrement.
A wave of writers such as Michael Follan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Eric Schlosser have, over the past ten years, begun to expose the realities of industrial food production lines which are subject to huge potential for unintended substances entering the product at any point.
The following is an extract from Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2003):
"A former IBP [large meat processing company] 'gutter' told me that it took him six months to learn how to pull out the stomach and tie off the intestines without spillage. At best, he could gut two hundred consecutive cattle without spilling anything. Inexperienced gutters spill manure far more often. At the IBP slaughterhouse in Lexington, Nebraska, the hourly spillage rate at the gut table has run as high as 20 percent, with stomach contents splattering one out of five carcasses. [...]
"The overworked, often illiterate workers in the nation's slaughterhouses do not always understand the importance of good hygiene. They sometimes forget that this meat will eventually be eaten. They drop meat on the floor and then place it right back on the conveyer belt. They cook bite-sized pieces of meat in their sterilizers, as snacks, thereby rendering the sterilizers ineffective. They are directly exposed to a wide variety of pathogens in the meat, become infected, and inadvertently spread disease."
As I hinted in the opening paragraphs, the arrival of this kind of food processing has been long in the making. Back in 1948, Siegfried Giedion published a book called Mechanization Takes Command. The date of publication is not to be overlooked. Giedion, though a resident of neutral Switzerland, was nonetheless writing during the bleak aftermath of WWII and his book, which catalogues in extraordinary detail agricultural and industrial machines of the 19th and early 20th, appeared during a key moment modernism.
Mechanization Takes Command is extraordinary for the fact that it seeks to document and preserve the heritage of technological innovation at a time when the full horrors of Hitler's mechanised mass-murder within concentration camps like Auschwitz was finally becoming known.
In Giedion's comprehensive catalogue of mills, assembly lines and ingenious processing machines, one finds many examples of how livestock and crops, specifically, began to habitually pass through such systems in order to provide the market with a stable supply of produce. As Nicola Twilley recounts in this fantastic blog post on Giedion's work, some of these contraptions "conjure up Rube Goldberg". Especially, for example, this "Apparatus for Catching and Suspending Hogs. 1882.":
(U.S. Patent 252,112, 10 January, 1882).
There is also discussion of a "pig-scraping machine" invented around 1900 which operated thus: "An endless chain drags the pig through a series of little knives, attached to adjustable springs." Although the capacity was an impressive "eight pigs per minute" the machine was ultimately deemed to be inaccurate and cost-ineffective.
Many have noted that our contemporary aversion to slaughter and the general messiness of food production is essentially a result of our having devolved, over the past few centuries, the activity of slaughter and evisceration to nameless warehouses miles from our homes. The pristine elegance of the frozen lasagne which simply states "beef" does not require any knowledge of the thing which is a cow, nor the process by which it is made into our lasagne.
Our contemporary disgust at blood, entrails, and carcasses - even, for some, the head of a fish on our dinner plate - is manufactured alongside processed foods as a kind of invisible cultural by-product.
"Our contemporary disgust at blood, entrails, and carcasses is manufactured alongside processed foods as a kind of invisible cultural by-product"
Now that we have discovered the failures of these systems which we trusted to operate in the dark, without our intervention, the folly of our reliance has become plain to see. As the popularity of books which expose the difficult-to-stomach realities of hyper-industrialised food supply chains soars, and the horsemeat scandal continues to revolt consumers, there is perhaps a growing interest in alternative methods of production.
Many advocate organic meat purchased direct from farms. However, this is a suitable option only for the upwardly mobile middle-classes since the cost remains highly prohibitive. There are also issues with scaling such supply lines to accept higher demand since attempting to do so ultimately resulted in the original rise of mechanisation in the first place.
However, there are new technologies on the horizon which promise to literally feed our desire for cheap, readily available meat.
Two years ago Cornell University's Computational Synthesis Lab reported that they had begun experimenting with designs for a 3D "food printer". The BBC noted at the time that the team hoped their concept would become, "as commonplace as the microwave oven or blender."
And in November last year Dave Evans, Chief Futurist for computer giant Cisco, predicted that consumers would be able to download "recipes" for 3D printed food products "roughly 15 years" from now.
In many ways 3D printed food might seem like the perfect solution. Materials can be precisely controlled and there is no long, multifarious assembly line style of production which so easily allows contaminants to enter the final product.
The idea does, however, demand a completely new perspective on the notion of what food is. Food is essentially, in this scenario, literally broken down into constituent elements which are assembled according to the instructions defined in a piece of code. The physical substance food is the return value of a successful "recipe" script, not something occurring naturally which is grown and cultivated and prepared for the table. Food becomes "media".
Maybe that's OK. But it's important to note the ontological distinction at play. Recently Barry Wellman published an online article which considers a similar effect occurring with a completely different kind of "media":
On November 13, 2012, Whitney Erin Boesel tweeted and
emailed about a debate in her University of California Santa Cruz graduate course. Sociology professor Jenny Reardon asked her class, "What about albums: Do people still listen to albums." Boesel reported: "This caused some confusions; what does she mean by ‘album?' Do digital files count? I interjected to define an album as ‘a set of tracks that an artist records and releases together, as a set and in a specific order, that you listen to in that order.'" Prof. Reardon responded, "See, an album is no longer a ‘thing'; it's become a concept!" The material album has become a virtual concept.
Food, in order to be printed in 3D, has to undergo the same process of re-conceptualisation. Food as virtual concept, as downloadable, seems to be the "natural" next step in our evolutionary thinking about what we need to know about what we eat. We don't require that beef be raised traditionally. Beef - of course! - just needs to be that brown stuff that tastes like, well, beef.
This is partly why the presence of horsemeat (and countless other contaminants) in our food goes so unnoticed. As a species we have just demonstrated in abundance that if the requirement for beef can be satisfied at face-value, then we will gladly, unquestioningly, accept it.
So synthetic food may clearly serve a utilitarian purpose in providing necessary nutrients and offering adequate sensory stimuli in terms of how it tastes, smells and feels. How it was derived becomes increasingly irrelevant.
"But what if, in the future, someone hacks your meal?
But what if, in the future, in a world where 3D printed dinners are a staple of Western domesticity, someone hacks your meal? What if the recipe you downloaded for a delicious open sandwich with steak and blue cheese dressing gets silently corrupted? What if the chemical recipe for those steak pieces gets altered slightly to mimic the texture and flavour of horsemeat?
My point is not to be sensationalist about the issue, but to illustrate that the mechanisation, and the virtualisation of food are subject to the same risks, and the same laws of entropy, to which food was really always subject.
3D printed food may satisfy various economic requirements of the future and, statistically at least, may certainly be seen to be "safer" or more reliable. But should such technology continue to encourage a human blindness, or simple unwillingness, to investigate and understand the substances which we eat and digest, then we have only ourselves to blame when we realise that it was mutton dressed as lamb all along.
Photo: "Carcass display" by National Rural Knowledge Exchange. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.
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