The horse meat scandal grows bigger by the hour. As the number of products and retailers caught up grows wider and deeper, who really is to blame? Did Tesco and Aldi not check their suppliers well enough? Did the FSA fail to conduct their regulatory functions? Did someone somewhere fraudulently put horse meat into the beef food chain? Only time will answer these questions. However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake – is our food culture to blame?
The nature of the food we buy, how we buy it and the extended supply chains involved are in my view highly culpable. Most failures of this nature are not isolated blips, but are the logic result of a complex sequence of events. The different pressures and forces that apply create the motivations, incentives and possibilities for such failings to occur.
A generation ago food was produced and sold locally by independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers. The local high street was full of independent retailers. The rise of the supermarket simply blew them all away. The selling of locally sourced produce stopped, to be replaced by a range goods flown, shipped and driven in from every corner of the globe. The carbon footprint of your green beans and bananas is huge.
Maintaining food safety over such a long supply chain is near to impossible. The food affected so far has included lasagna sold in the UK, made in France and based on Romanian meat. Tesco had issues with burgers produced in Yorkshire from Irish meat. While various codes of conduct and certification schemes exist, they cannot guarantee everything is as it should be. Documentation stating what frozen meat is delivered to the burger factory is wide open to corruption and abuse.
The rise of supermarket has led to the pooling of buying power. Big supermarkets screw suppliers to floor on price, while being really demanding. This pressure creates a motivation to break the rules. If a company is only making a few pence per burger profit, taking shortcuts on raw materials becomes tempting. The whole buyer/seller relationship is grossly biased in favour of the supermarket. Just ask a dairy farmer about milk prices.
Modern lives have shaped the way we buy food. People are busy and want speed and convenience. This means that driving into a free car park and filling your trolley with convenience meals you can heat up in five minutes is popular. The habit of actually cooking food from fresh ingredients is missing from the lives of many people.
We have also become very distant from food production. Little cellophane packets with portions of meat sliced up bear no relation to the rearing and slaughtering of animals. Bags of weighed and washed carrots of a nice even size are a long way from the varied, crooked and muddy vegetables that are pulled out the ground.
Here is my plan to improve our food culture:
- Ensure planning regulations give small businesses a better chance over supermarkets
- Introduce lessons on cooking and where food comes from at school
- Encourage and celebrate seasonal, locally produced food
- Encourage co-operative food groups to work in poorer areas, where diets are often worse and good fresh food is less available
So before a scapegoat is found, we must remember our whole food system is currently dysfunctional. Only by tackling these systemic issues can we have a healthier and more sustainable food supply chain.