By Mike Small

The gallus humour of the Horse Burger jokes (or should that be gags?) is revealing. My Lidl Pony is my favourite. It’s funny. But there’s a real danger in just laughing-off this scandal.

Today, as Tesco CEO Philip Clarke and the rest of Big Food Britain goes off into full spin mode, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the real issues at stake here. These are fairly simple:

1) We don’t know what is in our food and we don’t know where its come from

2) We’ve given-over control  of our food system to a handful of very large companies

3) It’s de-regulation not criminality that is revealed here

4) We’re eating far, far too much very cheap, highly processed, low-quality meat products (according to figures from the market analysts Mintel, 89,000 tonnes of burgers, worth £481m, was sold in 2011)

5) This is just one aspect of far wider problems in our shopping culture (as pointed to by last week’s revelation that ‘we’ waste half of the food that’s produced in the UK)

Our food manifesto aims to rectify some of this – crucially we need to begin to reign in the ridiculous monopoly supermarkets have in retail and the frightening political influence they have, particularly at Westminster. Amidst the joking we need to remember there is something we can do about this. We propose a moratorium on further supermarket expansion as we begin to reign in (no pun intended) the power of the giant retailers. In the midst of these exposes it’s worth remembering that this is possible. We’ve allowed these companies to grow so dominant sometimes it feels like they ARE the food system.

Meanwhile, the spin is on. The emphasis will be on finding a scapegoat focusing on the strength of the system that found the problem and quickly moving on. The UK food and environment minister David Heath, has already declared that the presence of horsemeat was probably the result of criminality.

This is all about PR and nothing about public transparency and accountability. “I don’t think they have put a step wrong so far,” said Neil Saunders, from the retail analysts Conlumino. “Obviously they would have preferred this didn’t happen but it has and they have admitted what has happened, they have informed the public and they haven’t hidden anything. They have withdrawn all the products and they have promised to keep people updated … it has been a very responsible reaction.”

But let’s be under no illusions. This has come about because of the corporate capture of the food industry. We need to reclaim it back. Felicity Lawrence has it clear enough:

Intense lobbying has ensured that the meat industry is now regulated with a light touch. Meat inspection by the government’s Meat Hygiene Service has been steadily deregulated over the past two decades. The MHS vet in a large abattoir cuts a lonely figure and is often in any case absent at night. Current proposals before Europe would make the industry largely self-policing. The Food Standards Agency, meanwhile, was itself eviscerated by the coalition government as part of the Conservatives’ “bonfire of the quangos”. Its previous chief executive Tim Smith is now Tesco’s technical director and dealing with the scandal on the other side of the fence. Trading standards officers, who would be responsible for detecting mislabelled meat have also been cut drastically by the coalition. There were 26% fewer inspections in 2011-12 than in 2009-10 and a 29% drop in prosecutions.

The alternative is shorter supply chains where you can actually see what’s going on. For ethical vegetarians this is all irrelevant, but for those people who want to eat meat but want it to be high quality, organic, free range and ethically reared, the alternative is local food bought from a source you can rely on. Lawrence again: “Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants. Some of the traces of pig found may have come from cross-contamination in factories where both pigs and cattle are slaughtered, although it is hard to explain away the beefburger with 29% horse, and in that case ABP is pointing the finger at two of its continental European suppliers.”

All of this is part of the race to the bottom of ‘austerity food’ – we want very, very cheap food, we want meat with every meal and the authorities have cut corners; ‘slashing red tape’ the Tories call it, I think.

Out of all of this may come a clearer picture of what’s going on in our food economy. The supermarkets as the trusted brand may be dissolving. Joanna Blythman has written ( ‘Horse meat in your burgers? If the food’s processed, you’re right to worry‘):

Supermarkets pose as gatekeepers of national food safety, glittering edifices of hygiene, transparency and best practice. You’d think they’d run frequent tests to ensure that everything they sell is up-to-scratch and completely legit. After all, they constantly brag about their rigorous technical and quality-control standards.

Actually, our supermarkets have devolved that responsibility to their suppliers. Environmental health and trading standards officers used to make spot checks and announced inspections, but cuts put paid to that.

If Dobbin Gate has told us anything, it is that we need local food not just to reduce our emissions but also to know where our food comes from and to reclaim our food culture. Provenance has just gone from being the preserve of foodies and chefs to being a matter of national importance.

  • Admin
    The Fife Diet January 21, 2013 at 10:14

    It’s a good point Rob, thanks. I think access to land, allotments and a big increase in retail diversity and local economic resilience is part of the answer.

    But it’s also about what and how we eat. The profit’s in the process. There’s very little profit in a pot of leek and potato soup (affordable, seasonal and healthy). So creating a culture where we know how to cook from scratch is more important than some fluffy or patrician commentators would have you believe.

    The other part of the equation is what other areas of our lives we are being ripped off in. People used to spend about 40% of their income on food. Now we spend about 10%. As private utilities have emerged and costs have gone up in other areas our ability to buy decent food is under attack. This is a complex question but I’d challenge the idea that supermarkets provide really good cheap food. What I wouldn’t challenge is the idea that there are very few alternatives. Therein lies the problem and the challenge.

  • rob sale January 19, 2013 at 11:55

    I agree completely with your analysis of the role of big food in all this but how do you construct modern alternative where. local food doesn’t become the preserve of the wealthy and the rest are left with the the processed stuff from Tesco e tc. These class diviisions often split local campaigns against new supermarkets. Recommended reading gratefully received.