We have so far avoided writing about the horsemeat scandal (or ‘horsegate’ as it is becoming fondly known) as it has been everywhere and is frankly getting a bit boring. However, it appears to be snowballing into what I can only hope with result in an overhaul of the food system. So here are my thoughts on the matter:
The obvious question that has to be asked is why didn’t anyone know about it? At what point did supply chains get long and complicated enough to the point that manufacturers no longer knew what meat they were using? Scottish farmers are using this too their advantage encouraging people to eat Scotch beef as the Scotch label means it has been born, reared, slaughtered and processed within Scotland and every pack carries a code that allows the meat to be traced to its origin. Local producers should follow suit and cash in on sudden interest in traceability. I only ask that we find a way to sustain consumer’s interest in origin of food long enough to really reshape the industry.
For me the biggest issue wasn’t that there was horsemeat in those burgers. It was simply that noone knew about it. Horse is a meat some people eat by choice, particularly in Asia and some parts of Europe. In fact, there are seven abattoirs in the UK licensed to kill horses for human consumption. But you should know what it is you’re buying. We need clearer, better defined labelling so consumers know what it is they’re buying.
3. Meat prices
Beyond the traceability / labelling problems, we need to ask why did this happen in the first place? Meat is expensive because it is expensive to produce – and truth be told, we are not paying enough for our meat. Just think about what you need to produce beef: land, animal feed, shelter, vets, man power. And they all have to meet British welfare standards. At the end of it, the price of meat should reflect the energy, effort, hard work and natural resource that goes into its production. But somewhere along the line, we as consumers started expecting to eat meat every day. We started expecting cheap meat or buy one get one free offers. Gone are the days when the Sunday roast provided your meat intake for the week (going into stews, pies and soups for the rest of the week). We saw a fine example of the conflict this creates for supermarkets when Morrisons backtracked from its 100% British poultry policy to import cheaper European meat in response to consumer demand.
So lets look at the facts of the food that broke this scandal. Cheap burgers. Consumers demand for cheap meat is such that they want to be able to buy a pack of beefburgers for under £1. Findus lasagne retails (or retailed) for an average price of £1.60. If this is how much consumers are expecting and willing to pay, then companies are going to respond to that demand. In a letter to the Editor of the Times, Neil Murray of FOODNEWS recalls a burger factory manager saying “We don’t want to make this sort of product. But the retailers ask us to, and we have the production capacity. You do not have to be a genius to realise that a burger costing 5p is not going to be top-notch.”
The problem is, where there is a demand, a supply will be created to meet it. Supermarkets are doing their best to keep up but as a result margins are getting squeezed along the supply chain so meat producers can’t afford to supply manufacturers at the price they are offering. This results in cheaper competitiors entering the arena from further afield and opens the possibility of a black market in food.
4. Black market
Back in October, I wrote a blog article about the increasing incidents of food fraud and a growing black market in food. Horsegate is the moment food fraud became interesting enough to break out of industry press and into the public forum. As everyone continues to play pass the buck about who is responsible, Felicity Lawrence writes in the Guardian a wonderful article about the intricacies of horsemeat in the supply chain.
First of all, it is legal to slaughter horses for human consumption but they need to have a valid passport listing all the medicines the horse has ever taken. This is to prevent phenylbutazone getting into human food as it is not deemed for for human consumption. The meat also needs to be labelled on the pack (see 2. Labelling above). So somewhere in horsegate, fraud on the simplest level has been taking place – mislabelling, lack of valid passports, and lack of drug testing.
Second of all, Lawrence unveils the connections between horsemeat and criminal activity – it is costly to transport horses when they have such low value, it makes no economic sense unless there are criminal activities involved. Last October, a horse dealer was convicted for smuggling over half a million pounds worth of cannibas from Scotland through Belfast in their horse lorry. We can be certain that this is not a one off incident and I wouldn’t be surprised if the trafficking didn’t stop at drugs (arms & human trafficking are both real possiblities but i’ll reserve that chat for anyone who is specifically interested @HelenJGracie).
It seems to me we have reached a critical point in the evolution of the food industry. We have 3 choices:
1. Do nothing: Let the black market continue to grow and thrive. Integrate the over-complex food supply chain with criminal activity as consumers continue to demand cheap meat our farmers can’t afford to supply. Create a void in the market place ready for fulfillment. Just don’t ask where its come from.
2. Do something: Treat the symptoms not the cause by DNA testing all meat products. Guess what – DNA testing costs money, who is going to pay for that?
3. Wake up and pay attention: Address the cause: adjust consumers expectations of cheap meat; invest in traceable supply chains and clear uniform labelling; source meat locally. Create a stable and secure food system that doesn’t need to be propped up by criminal activity.
We’ve got a long way to go. It ain’t over yet but one thing is clear: something has to change!