Horse Meat Scandal Serves Up A Heavy Dose Of Preemptive Outrage

The horse meat scandal rocking Europe leaves one question unanswered: why do people care about the horse meat scandal rocking Europe?

The horse meat scandal, which has spread outrage and blame all over Europe, even reaching through the anti-outrage orb that surrounds Ikea, makes me think that we need a new term: "preemptive outrage." Preemptive outrage is the phenomenon in which someone doesn't care all that much about something, like, say, horse meat in Ikea meatballs, but they think other people might get legitimately outraged, so they deem it safer to also show outrage.

As best I can tell, preemptive outrage is fueling all the squawking about horse meat turning up in packaged lasagna and Ikea meatballs. Of course, to have preemptive outrage, you need potential reasons for actual outrage. Let's take a look at a few of those to see if there's something to neigh about:

1. People were lied to about what they were eating

I imagine that Europeans are more sensitive to this sort of thing than Americans. After all, they banned antibiotics and hormones in their meat over a decade ago (Americans enjoy bovine antibiotics and synthetic sex hormones with every burgerlicious bite). Consumer protections are strong across the European Union, so if something as major as having the wrong large animal in the food could happen, it speaks to a larger breakdown in food safety. If horse meat was the most offensive thing in American processed meat, we would be doing pretty good.

Outrage legitimacy: reasonable.

2. Horses are pretty, so people don't want to eat horse meat

I suspect this is a big reason for the horse meat preemptive outrage, and if so, it speaks to the contradictory feelings people have about eating animals. I became a vegitarrean when I realized that I was making decisions about which animals had a right to live based on cultural norms and a personal love for some animals (dogs, cats) and not others (pigs, cows). I wasn't sure how to feel about that, so I made a blanket decision to become a vegitarrean, which isn't airtight, but works well enough. If there's a line in your head with beef on one side and horse meat on the other, that's fine, but you might want to consider how rational that is.

Outrage legitimacy: weak.

3. We don't know where the horse meat came from, so we don't know if it's safe.

True, but from what people are saying, it's not at all clear that people actually have this concern. For starters, we haven't heard of anyone getting sick off the horsemeat in Ikea meatballs or in Findus-brand lasagna. Two German politicians are calling for the lasagnas to be distributed to the poor (one of them publicly eating a horse meat-tainted lasagna to make his point. An EU regulator quoted in the Reuters video above said that the legal authority to recall the horse meat products did not necessarily exist, because the horse meat was not necessarily dangerous.

"We're simply not allowed to," said Owen Patterson, the British Environment Secretary. "Should material evidence come forth that there is a threat to human health, I will not hesitate to take the appropriate action." Anne McIntosh, arguing the other side, called for a temporary suspension of imports until further tests were done, but qualified that statement with, "I'm not suggesting there's a health risk at the present time."

Outrage legitimacy: possible in theory, but not there in practice.

I actually appreciate how measured those politicians were. Outrage is always the safer position, but it is rarely the result of actual rage. Ikea, Findus and whoever else is located somewhere on the horse meat supply chain has to assess if they are at risk for public shaming, and if a little preemptive outrage would be an effective defense.

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