Another Reason to Fear Food Contamination: Dietary Restrictions

In Britain earlier this year, pork DNA was discovered in meat labeled halal and sold for serving in school cafeterias. It’s not the first or the last case of food contamination in a year that’s been rather rife with contaminated meat scandals, and it’s certainly not the first or last time meat has been labeled as safe for consumption by people with religious dietary restrictions when this is not actually the case. It’s also yet another example of why people should be concerned about what is happening with the meat industry, because contamination of religious-certified meats is evidence of carelessness when it comes to controlling production lines, and it’s reflective of larger social attitudes about religious dietary restrictions.

Food certified as okay for consumption is carefully reviewed and conditions for production are supposed to be monitored. Meats bearing halal and kosher labels, or labels indicating that they are safe for vegetarians (which includes some Buddhists, Hindus, and others), are purchased by people who believe the label and in fact count on its accuracy. They don’t want to eat given foods for religious reasons, because the consumption of, for example, pork, violates their religious beliefs.

Such food tends to fetch a higher price at market. Certifications add to the expense of production, and in some cases special slaughtering and processing methods must be used to keep meats halal and kosher, which means that they can’t just be handled on a regular production line. That makes them more costly, and people are willing to pay the higher cost for the assurance that the foods they’re eating are safe. Lots of companies make substantial sums, in fact, from selling foods specifically for halal, kosher, and other religious dietary markets, and some have well-established reputations as reliable sources of food free from contamination.

So when contamination is unearthed in the meat supply, it’s a big problem for people with religious dietary restrictions. It means they have to doubt the food they’ve been consuming, and depending on the specific precepts they follow, they might need to get rid of kitchen equipment, participate in ceremonies to cleanse themselves and their living environments, and so forth. For school children fed in cafeteria environments, it would be incredibly traumatic to hear that the people you trusted to feed you safely were giving you food you couldn’t eat, and parents would understandably be deeply upset as well.

Yet, coverage of these situations is usually scant, and rarely spreads beyond small religious communities. It’s a few lines of commentary in a few newspapers. And the reason for that is often that people dismiss religious dietary restrictions as an issue, and don’t consider them something to be taken seriously. There’s a larger cultural attitude that people of faith who choose to observe dietary restrictions are being ridiculous, or demanding, and that their religious dietary preferences aren’t really that important. They could be compromised in a pinch, say, and a ‘pinch’ becomes a loosely-defined concept. It’s food, whatever, just eat it. Why do you have to make things so hard for everyone else?

People of faith who inquire about the safety of food may be lied to, assured that food is fine to eat, or told that they shouldn’t be so picky. They’re constantly forced to inspect labels, interrogate kitchens, and ask themselves whether they feel comfortable eating in a given locale. While some may be looser about their dietary restrictions than others, the individual experiences and approaches of religious people can’t be taken as representative of the whole. Some Jewish people eat bacon. Others keep strictly kosher kitchens with separate work areas, tools, and more for different kinds of foods. Neither can be used to make blanket statements about Judaism and food.

It’s notable, of course, that religions with dietary restrictions are primarily practiced by people of colour, illustrating racial ties with the disdain about food and religion. It’s not just that mainstream society rejects the concept that so-called ‘minority’ religions should be respected, but that mainstream society also rejects the idea that people of colour should be respected when they express concerns about their food, and make it clear that there are certain foods they are not comfortable eating.

Notably, meat in vegetarian food tends to attract outrage in the West, where vegetarian and veganism are present in society and practiced by a not insignificant swathe of white people. But contamination of religious food doesn’t seem to be a matter for concern; not just intrinsically because it is wrong, and troubling, but because it also reflects poor quality control and the potential for contamination with other things that could endanger health and human safety.

Religious dietary preferences matter, and are deserving of respect whether someone is a guest at a dinner party or picking up some meat at the butcher’s. The fact that society at large doesn’t seem to think this is an issue worth noting, talking about, and addressing is deeply troubling, and illustrative of the fact that cultural dominance looms large in the world of food politics.

It’s more important for people to talk about horsemeat in their food than for people to discuss the fact that Muslim schoolchildren were fed pork, because white people worried about eating horsies want to express their outrage, but brown children with religious dietary preferences don’t matter, and neither do the concerns of their community, apparently. I don’t want to start quoting famous poems at you or anything, but ‘At first they came for the…’ comes to mind here.