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.
"The key is creating shorter, more transparent supply chains"In theory people prefer food products to food commodities, which is why supermarkets like Tesco have ranges like Boswell Farms’ beef steaks and Woodside Farms’ sausages, even though the farms in question are completely fictional. (Restaurants are not immune to this: if you see “Birchstead British” meat on a menu, know that it is simply a premium brand of the mass catering supplier Brakes.) The very facts this often works shows that the preference for genuine products is shallow and customers tend to buy raw ingredients and simple staples like bread on price, and formulated, ready-made products by brand.
When so much food is a commodity sold on price, supply chains become long and opaque and the pressure to win contracts incentivises corner-cutting. Both make guaranteeing the provenance of food almost impossible. Retailers and manufacturers mitigate against this by creating systems of checks and audits. But this is like trying to reduce crime by creating ever more laws and employing ever more law enforcers. It can have some effect but if you never address the root causes, you’ll never eradicate their effects.
In a complex world, it would be naive to suppose that we can or even should abandon the current food system altogether. However, we can go a long way to improving it if we treat food more as a product and less as a commodity. The key is creating shorter, more transparent supply chains. If retailers really know where their food comes from, not just where it was last despatched from, they can build the kinds of relationships with suppliers that are much more effective at maintaining standards than checklists sent on from auditors and inspectors. Rules and regulations, no matter how stringent, are no substitute for trust that is well-earned. And retailers cannot expect their customers on trust them if they do not trust their suppliers, relying on them following processes and procedures instead.
The prospects for such a change are weak all the time that we allow food policy to be driven by nothing more than consumer demand. Although there are many ethical consumers who vote with their wallets for fairer, more sustainable food, many more either can’t afford or can’t be bothered to do so. We cannot allow our food supply to be entirely market driven. We are consumers but we are also citizens who should be demanding that the government does not leave it to producers and buyers to fix our broken food system. Food is a political issue, but it is packaged and sold as a consumer one.