Food, Unfit for Purpose

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a good long look at the state of our food chain, and we definitely don’t like what we see. Horsemeat in processed meals being passed off as beef (in some cases the “beef” consisted 100% of horse!); horsemeat containing traces of the painkiller phenylbutazone entering the food chain (found in eight carcasses in the UK, of which six may have entered the food chain in France); the removal of dozens of product lines from supermarket shelves; traces of pork DNA found in prison meals labelled as “halal”; the discovery of slaughtered dogs in Spain intended for processing into animal feed; horsemeat contamination of catered foods for schools and hospitals; incomprehensible and complex food chains being infiltrated by criminal gangs; and the inevitable, spectacular game of passing the buck between politicians, regulators and food business operators: who themselves shift the blame between producers, slaughterers, suppliers, sub-contractors, traders, processors and retailers.

Despite the probable minimal actual risk to human health, this isn’t merely harmless fun. Nor can it be minimised to a few isolated incidents of deceit or a single issue of misleading labeling. This is a systematic exposé of a flawed system of procuring food for our citizens, one which is symptomatic of many of the evils which afflict our time, from deregulation to profiteering to popular apathy and ignorance. Nor can it be solved by a quick fix or a few minor reforms. The notion that this entire scandal can be put down to the tweaking of one European rule (as in the case of the UK no longer being able to classify de-sinewed meat as meat from 2012, an argument perfectly designed to fit the popular anti-EU prejudice), or to one single cause, is risible (and in the case of de-sinewed meat, the letter from the Meat Hygiene Service to DEFRA in 2011, warning that contaminated horsemeat could enter the food chain – before the DSM rule change – undermines this claim). If anything, these events, and the continentally integrated food chains they concern, prove the case for greater European regulatory coordination, not less.

The food supply chains and markets we have created over the past few decades are superb in providing us with cheap food, which is what consumers have demanded, particularly during the economic crisis and the resulting pressure on household budgets. In the UK spending on food as a percentage of household income has fallen to 11.3% in 2011, not quite a record low but historically very low. Unfortunately, they have been superb at very little else, and cheap food has a high social cost. Concentrated buying power from processors and retailers play a large role in creating the situation where dairy farmers and pork farmers can’t get a price high enough to cover their production costs, or where hill farmers need to rely on EU subsidy in order to economically survive. Sharp business practices from purchasers, such as listing fees or retrospective revision of contracts are well known in the farming sector. Intense competition may produce lower prices but also can lead to cut corners: witness the public and animal health scandals around BSE, foot-and-mouth, or ecoli. Governments have systematically cut back on financial and technical support for regulators and inspections. In the UK, the FSA has had to reduce its number of inspectors by 800 and the budgets of some local government sampling units have been slashed by 70%. Deregulation didn’t work in the financial sector and it isn’t working in the food sector.

Food supply chains in Europe are extraordinarily long and complex, involving multiple food business entities and opaque corporate structural engineering, which increases the difficulty for adequate inspection and regulation, and opens the door for fraud and criminal activity. It makes it difficult to work out who is responsible for what, and who’s to blame when things go wrong. This is underlined by the story in the Observer that one of the trading companies involved in the horsemeat scandal, the Cypriot company Draap, appears to have been using a corporate services company as a director, which has also been used in the global arms trade. It is extremely worrying that our food chains have contacts with this murky corporate underworld. Even disregarding illegal behaviour, and given the concerns of carbon emissions and climate change, it is bizarre that we import (for instance) water, when we produce bucket loads of the stuff, apples from South Africa or garlic from Argentina.

Food waste is also an unhappy by-product of our food supply system: about 90 million tonnes of agricultural produce is wasted annually in Europe, and about a third of the food for human consumption is wasted globally. This happens at multiple points along the chain, from harvesting losses to supermarket quality controls, but most worryingly often occurs after sale, through poor purchasing decisions or food management by consumers, revealing a lack of basic food knowledge among those who only consider the sticker price. They forget the high cost of low prices.

What kind of a world is it when those who till the soil to fill our dinner-plates can barely make enough to survive for another planting season? When milk and alcohol can retail at a lower price in the supermarkets than water? When disgusting slop can be served up to our children and our hospital patients on the grounds of “cost competitiveness”? When the number of malnourished people is roughly equivalent to the number of obese people? When the fanatic search for lower prices amidst intense competition leads to the entry of the Mafia into our food chain?

We need nothing less than a food revolution: a re-connection of consumers with producers, an increased appreciation and knowledge of the processes by which your fridge is stocked, better vigilance against those who would abuse the system for personal gain, and a fairer deal for those who produce our food in the first place. While reformed EU and national rules on food chain controls and inspections are necessary and will be examined – such as improved DNA testing of meat products, and better sampling techniques – we need much wider, cultural and attitudinal changes to the food chain to ensure both accuracy of information and quality of end product. I believe that this can be achieved through buying local. There is some evidence that this is already happening, as Richard Lochhead showed anecdotal evidence that sales at local butchers are up 20-25%. Short supply chains, farmers markets and quality labels cut out the middle men, enabling direct purchase by consumers and a guarantee for transparency and quality: it boosts the local economy as well, protects diversity in the retail sector and helps keep our farmers on the land. The Scottish Government have already invested £200,000 in farmers markets, and promoted education about healthy eating in schools.

I’ve been pushing for mandatory Country of Origin labeling for many years through the EU food labeling legislation, which will encourage our consumers to buy local. The Commission have promised a study and possibly a legislative proposal for all meat products by the end of 2013: I want to see that date brought forward. I have also successfully included in the Quality Product legislation a study on a local farming and direct sales label, which should also be enacted forthwith. The European Parliament’s AGRI Committee have also voted for Rural Development funding for farm certification schemes, which I think is the best way for farmers to win confidence among consumers through voluntarily taking external controls and verification. And we need to push harder for reforms to the EU’s competition rules, to ensure farmers can get the bargaining power they need for a fair price, and reduce the power of supermarkets to crush their smaller brethren.

Let’s seize the opportunity, not just to fix the immediate problems of fraud in food labelling and adequate inspections and controls, but to fix our food chain to make it fairer for producers and consumers alike.

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  1. neilgall says:

    Great piece, but I’m not so sure the health effects are so insignificant, at least long term. Dropping mass-produced cheap calories with low nutritional value in favour of farmer’s markets, local butchers and fishmongers for the bulk of our food is key to fixing the western world’s out of control healthcare costs.

  2. Ray Bell says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. There is nothing wrong with eating horse meat if you’re a meat eater. I think this is an ethnic taboo whose roots are lost so long ago that we don’t even remember why we have it. It’s not because they’re cute animals, since we eat lamb all the time, and lambs are far cuter.

    By coincidence, I gave a talk on this subject back in November. Turns out to be prophetic!

    The issue here is mislabelling and missourcing. That’s the issue. Processed food is so ground up you can’t tell what it is. I wish they’d DNA test those doner kebab lumps I see round town…

    The idea we can’t eat horsemeat is just a superstition. At least, Jews, Muslims and Hindus have a religious rationale for not eating certain animals. We don’t even know why we refuse to eat horse!

  3. It makes perfect sense to boycott the big supermarkets and corporations generally. Our democracy is compromised by the power these corporations have over our governments, and if we didn’t buy their products, they couldn’t do this. And of course there is the dodgy health and safety of GMO, etc, the Worfare and fair trade issues, the environmental impact of the products they sell etc. Shopping local and ethical (fair trade, organic, eco friendly) may be more expensive but perhaps more effective than voting in many ways. Even if you are on the dole, Aldi and Lidl don’t support Workfare, so it is possible for everyone to shop local/ethical, no matter what their income is 🙂

  4. There is a Go Loco!! gig at the Banshee Labrinyth to support local traders, on 28th March, with information about different varieties of local/ethical shopping, stalls from local traders, local bands and music 8pm till late. if anyone is interested.

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