?Technological changes can have unintended consequences — they did in India in 1857 and they may again in England today, and for the same reason. As Art Friedberg reports this week, the Bank of England’s troubled £5 note is the subject of what could be its greatest controversy: it contains traces of animal fat.
To many this might generate a response of, “So what?” However, for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, vegans, vegetarians, and others in the United Kingdom who have to use the notes, the existence of tallow in the notes may be a matter of morality. And lest some brush off their response as an overreaction, let’s not forget the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British East India Company, which held control of the subcontinent. While that rebellion had many causes, the final spark was the rumor that cow and pig fat was used to grease the gunpowder cartridges for British Enfield rifles. A soldier was expected to tear open the paper cartridge with his teeth, dump its gunpowder into the barrel of the rifle, and then shove the greased paper and ball in after it. Not surprisingly, Hindu and Muslim soldiers objected to this because of their sacred beliefs involving cows and pigs. More than 100,000 would die in the rebellion.
This is not to suggest that mass violence could erupt over the tallow ingredient of the new polymer notes. However, the use of tallow, of which Bank of England officials say they were unaware until the recent revelations, is just the latest blow to the bank respecting the note. The bank has been embarrassed by YouTube videos and other social media postings of individuals erasing ink from the notes or applying heat until the notes shrink. Those kinds of problems have been experienced with polymer notes from other issuers, but they still seemed to catch the U.K. population by surprise.
Preparing a new note, especially in this era when increasingly sophisticated anti-counterfeiting devices are used, takes a lot of work and experimentation, and even then, unexpected problems can still arise, as in the printing of the current generation of $100 Federal Reserve notes. Those problems delayed release of the notes by months while the problems were resolved. Undoubtedly the U.S. government will make every effort to prevent problems with the new $5, $10, and $20 notes being designed. I just personally hope as a vegan that these future notes lack any sort of ingredients derived from animal by-products.