Sun Feb 17th, 2013 at 04:31:17 PM EST
Since the initial discovery of equine meat being substituted for beef in a range of burgers in an Irish supermarket chain, we have had the situation extend to a variety of ready-prepared meals and foodstuffs. As this has happened we have had a variety of PR firms charging into battle trying to manage the reputation of a selection of food producers. As a first step we are seeing the solid attempt to designate the current problem as "contamination" which suggests either reporters, PR and politicians are being somewhat dishonest, either that or their expensive education did not extend to buying a dictionary for looking up the definition of words.
Around twenty years ago I used to do lots of agency work, and for a couple of months ended up at an industrial food plant's office, sorting out the paperwork, after the previous member of office staff had done a runner. Ended up signing more confidentiality agreements for this job than for any other job, including those that had the Official Secrets Act involved.
Anyway, one of the production lines in this factory made breakfast cereals, basically to the same recipe every day, but with different boxes, depending which major supermarket had that day's orders.
Every couple of weeks, there would be a squad of supermarket inspectors turn up and go through every inch of the paperwork, making sure that people weren't palming off cheaper ingredients than they were contracted to use, or that the full weight of ingredients were going into the product. It might work out that there was only a six-monthly visit from each one. but with all the different brands, and all the different products it all added up.
Not only did they have a contractual right to check our site and production, it was part of the company's contracts with our suppliers that the major supermarkets could go into their facilities and check their production and paperwork.
Now meat products, you've got the added risk of food poisoning, say you've cut a mix of beef and pork to save cash, then you have the risk if the pork isn't properly cooked that you wouldn't have with the beef. so I don't see how the supermarkets are going to have cut the inspections, with the risk to their brand image. On top of this you'll have all the paperwork brought in after the BSE and foot-and-mouth crisis. Both of which would force the companies to keep their eye on the ball.
The idea that the supermarkets didn't know what was going into their own brand products seems at least odd from that background, unless there has been a conscious decision not to know, with the expectation that corners would be cut to cut prices. You'd ask as well if this would be possible without some form of cartel arrangement so it didn't become the selling point of your opponents, that they checked all the way back to the farm where you didn't. As noted in this blogposting today
Zelo Street: Horsemeat - Look Over There!
Peter Marks, CEO of the Co-Op, could not have put it more plainly when questioned about where the buck stopped with the horsemeat scandal: "Food retailers can't duck this. We can't blame the Government. We can't blame the regulator (the FSA). We can't blame our suppliers. When we sell product in our shops, it's our responsibility". Thus a breath of fresh air in the fog of obfuscation
If you read the article, the CEO of Iceland, another UK supermarket chain, has an entirely opposite view, blaming it all on local government.
It's reported that 33% of UK women and 25% of UK men are saying they have given up processed readymeals, and the supermarkets are reporting that their shelves are being emptied of quorn and other vegetarian meals. How long this will last is another thing that will want watching.