Accepted paper:

Strategic Ignorance and Crises of Trust: Horsemeat, global supply chains and the making unforeseeable of food futures


Jeremy Brice (London School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the negotiation of anxieties about risk, responsibility and the anticipation of possible futures through the 2013 horsemeat scandal. Examining why food businesses did not foresee the adulteration of meat products, it explores the role of ignorance in making and managing futures.

Paper long abstract:

This paper considers how the anticipation of futures is problematised through food by examining the legacy of the revelation, in early 2013, that processed beef products sold by leading European supermarkets had been adulterated with horsemeat. These events spawned both public anxiety over the composition and mobilities of foodstuffs and official inquiries into the governance of risk within international food supply chains, which portrayed food manufacturers and retailers as insufficiently attentive to their meat suppliers' activities and the composition of their products. Out of these discussions emerged a trenchant question: why had major food businesses failed to anticipate that their suppliers might adulterate meat products, and to take precautions against this possibility?

This paper draws on interviews with employees of food businesses and providers of risk management services to understand the reasons for food businesses' apparent disinterest in their suppliers' activities. I will argue that food businesses' seeming ignorance of their supply chains is a response to a legal regime in which prior knowledge of threats to food safety or authenticity can carry a risk of prosecution. Through limiting their knowledge of potentially unsavoury practices among their suppliers, food businesses also manipulate their ability to foresee potential lapses, incidents and breaches of law. In exploring this process, I will show how the production of ignorance about the origins of foodstuffs, and about their attendant risks, becomes part of food businesses' anticipation and management of potential risks - and thus paradoxically becomes an active part of the process of making futures.

panel P033
Moving on: food futures and reimagining uncertainty [Anthropology of Food]