The problem comes from treating food more as a commodity than as a productby Julian Baggini / January 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Five years ago, The Food Safety Authority of Ireland broke the news that numerous beefburgers sold by supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland contained horse meat. A few weeks later, Findus beef lasagne was also found to be contaminated in an investigation that found equine ingredients in 11 out of 18 products tested.
“Horsegate” never posed a public health risk but it shook confidence in the security of the food supply chain. At least, temporarily it did. Red meat sales dropped in the aftermath and for a while retailers shifted to more local suppliers to restore confidence. But neither trend lasted.
Little of significance has changed since the scandal because the truth is that it was the almost inevitable consequence of a flawed food system, not just a failing of one small part of it. The nub of the problem is that farm produce is now more often a commodity sold on price than it is a product bought for its distinctive value.
To make this distinction clear, think of the difference between a farmer who supplies steaks to a local butcher and one who supplies them to a supermarket. The butcher sells the steak as a product from a particular place, will know what makes it particularly good or at least good-value, and will be able to pass on this knowledge to the customer. The supermarket lumps in the steak with all its others and the only connection with its producer by the time it hits the shelves will at most be a name on the label saying who supplied it. The next week, or even the next steak, could come from somewhere completely different, but will be sold as if it were identical.
The commodity/product distinction is even clearer when it comes to prepared foods. Manufacturers buy up the ingredients they need from whoever can supply them to their minimum quality standard at the best price. Manufacturers and retailers need so many tonnes of beef, gallons of milk or dozens of eggs, just as builders need so many tonnes of cement, pallets of brinks or litres of paint.