Over the last few months, the media have been covering the issue of horsemeat in beef products. A fraud investigation is currently underway to find the culprits, but as more tests are being announced, it’s becoming clear that this is not a one-off incidence, but a widespread practice. Retailers and processors are always trying to maximise their profits and are more than willing to cut corners if needs be. The price war between supermarkets has forced processors to get ever cheaper produce and raw material. The squeeze on prices has come at a time when manufacturers’ costs have been soaring. The handful of key players that dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe, have developed very long supply chains, particularly for cheap products, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold storage operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.
But they are not the only ones to blame. The governments in Westminster and Stormont have been slashing budgets for public services such as schools, hospitals, care homes, etc. reducing the budgets available for catering, forcing them to outsource to the cheapest contractor.
The Food Standards Agency, which was set up in the wake of the BSE crisis, has been broken up by the Coalition government in its bonfire of the quangos, so that responsibility in the current scandal is split. The FSA has limited powers and depends on industry alerting it to the results of tests voluntarily. Enforcement largely falls to individual local authorities and their trading standards officers, but their budgets have been slashed.
Official vets, who are required to be present when animals are being slaughtered, used to be directly employed by the government (still are in Northern Ireland) but many are now supplied under contract to the FSA by the private company Eville & Jones. Plants over a certain size are also required to have a meat hygiene inspector. The trend to deregulate and leave industry to police itself begun under the last Labour government and has seen numbers of inspectors fall from 1,700 at the height of the BSE crisis to around 800 now.
A profit driven market system is inherent to capitalism. Big business will do whatever it takes to maximise their profits. They do not care about the actual product never mind the consumer. We have no say or control over what goes in our food and we can’t rely on our so called elected representatives either. Politicians eat out of the hand of big business and defend their interests. It looks like we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg on this scandal, but it is clear that big business can’t be trusted with what goes on our plate, and therefore ultimately our health.