Thursday, 24 January 2013

Shutting the freezer door... after the horse-burger has bolted

...with apologies to the Bisto kids

The horse-burger scandal has livened up a dull, depressing and freezing week, revealing the deep vein of satirical humour practised by the twitterati.  Samples:

  •  I prefer my Lidl pony to Tesco burgers
  • Waitrose burgers: guaranteed Shergar free
  • Waiter: what would you like on your burger sir? Diner: £5 each way.
Well boom boom.

Writing as someone who lacks the traditional British sentimentality about animals, and particularly those regarded as pets, I can’t see any difference in principle between eating different types of quadruped, with two provisos. A) You’re told honestly what it is you’re eating, and b) you can be reasonably sure it’s free of superfluous chemicals and disease.  Neither of which condition seems to have been met in the recent cases.

Two possible culprits have emerged.  First, the government’s passion for deregulation, no-one was surprised to learn, has led to changes in FSA inspection regimes while cuts to local authority budgets have led to a substantial reduction in the number of trading standards officers. The funding for the FSA meat inspection regimes is being cut by £12m over four years.

Both government and the Food Standard Agency (FSA – or should that be SFA) have stressed that there was no danger to public health in the horse-burgers.  However, one food analyst challenged the claim, on the grounds that, in the absence of tests no-one can know if the horses were diseased or had been treated with veterinary medicines potentially harmful to humans.  And for the future, according to a leaflet issued by the FSA, "food business operators [are to] be given greater responsibility" for monitoring the health standards of food products.

But the second culprit, it has been argued, is the supermarkets. (Let's talk horse sense about food | Jay Rayner | Comment is free | The Observer).  Rayner points out that while supermarket bosses talk up their concerns for safety, in an industry dominated by brutal price competition, cost is everything.  Their dominant position enables the supermarkets to force cost-cutting deals on their suppliers – which in turn, encourages (some would say forces) those suppliers to cut corners.  And with beef prices rising at an alarming rate (current beef wholesale prices are around £3.80 a kilo compared with £1.85 for horsemeat), it’s not hard to see why substituting the one for the other might appeal to suppliers.

Governments’ ability to intervene is limited, even supposing they were minded to: any intervention which led to further increases in the price of food would be seen as electoral suicide.  And as Rayner points out, it’s easy for the relatively affluent middle classes praise the virtues of shopping locally where provenance is clear and trustworthy: no-one eats from the economy range by choice.   If identifying the problem is fairly simple, proposing a practical – and achievable – solution is less so.  It’s an issue to which we’ll return – frequently – on this site.