Horse meat and Food Sourcing

This is only supposed to be a short rant about the current scandal in the processed food world where horsemeat has been used in products which claim to be 100% pure beef.  Apologies for any incoherence.

Fraudulent claims aside, this “scandal” as everyone seems to refer to it is, with hindsight, grimly inevitable.

How I love commas.  I think I might love them too much.

The food processing industry is less about cuisine and more about engineering.  I have been to the last two major ingredient exhibitions in Paris.  Part of my work involves working in food supply chains.  The part I work in is relatively simple and straightforward [and doesn’t involve meat] but, nonetheless, I probably see more of food production than most.  These exhibitions rarely feature basic commodities such as dried fruit, grains, meat, vegetables, sugar, spices and the suchlike.  There are many of the exhibitors who are there to sell either processes or enzymes or packaging.  Things that you do to the basic ingredients and add to ingredients.

I guess that the vast majority of the consumers cannot begin to imagine the complexity behind how the foods that are so easy to buy in the supermarket actually get there.  I guess that most of them wouldn’t want to know.  This is not food.  The supply chains that exist to get the “products” [and I use the speechmarks to emphasise my cynicism over this] onto the shelves and into the home are so far-reaching and efficient that the it would make your head swim.  Partly from being impressed and partly from being astonished at the number of people, organisations and processes that are involved.

I am not pretending that global supply chains are anything new.  I know that we have been sourcing goods from around the world since the earliest days of what we generously and egotistically call civilisation.  But the efficiency and reliability and reach of these supply chains has to be seen to be believed.  And I honestly do they think that they are remarkable.

All of these things have given us an astonishing range of products.  An astonishing range but little of quality and certainly nigh on nothing of astonishing quality.

The price of food relative to the other things that we buy has been steadily falling over the years.  Here’s a graph.


This is for the USA.  It shows the steady fall of the percentage if disposable income spent on food.  See it fall.  This is probably a similar picture to what you find across Europe too.

Of course, like all statistics for a large population, it hides an awful lot of more useful information.  Here’s another graph.


As you might imagine, the calorific requirements for a rich person are largely the same as for a poor person. There will be some differences but I am struggling to identify the extent.  Since the UN works on a basis of comparable demands, so will I.  The logical extension of this is that a richer person will spend a smaller percentage of their income on their food than a poor person would.

The pressure is on the poor to find the money for their food and they are thus obliged to seek opportunities for savings in their food expenditure.  To do this, the poor are obliged to buy the cheaper food options, more often than not, from supermarkets.

The supermarkets are not, despite claims as to their ethical nature, paragons of virtue.  They seek to maintain their profit margins by dealing pretty brutally with their suppliers.  Where their suppliers are providing processed foods then these pressures to cut costs at the expense of their own margins are passed down the chain as far as possible.  The end result is that the suppliers of the initial raw materials, be it vegetables, milk or, in this case, meat are pressured to find savings in their own production methods.  The upshot is that, given the dependence on the sales into these supermarket supply chains, people start having to employ a bit of sharp practice as well as traditional bribery and corruption. It’s common in the garments industry where sharp practice is now professionalised.  In China it is possible to buy business software that allows you to maintain multiple sets of records.  One for the business which shows what’s really going on, one for the tax man and another for those interfering auditors acting for Western buyers.  If the auditors get really nosey you can always buy your certificates or simply try bribing the auditors to give you the audit outcome you need.  Sharp practice is also not at all rare in the food industries and now you can see for yourself what is happening.  Horsemeat is sold into beef supply chains because it’s cheaper and hey, once you’ve processed it to buggery, you wouldn’t be able to spot the difference anyway.

So there you go.  Wildly industrialised process methodologies coupled with global, difficult to monitor supply chains in which pressure to deliver cheap products whilst run a profitable business under extreme pressure from inflexible customers has given us the circumstances for horsemeat in your beefburgers.

There are two final points.  First, horsemeat is actually very nice, it’s just being sold it instead of what you thought you were buying is rather worrying.  The second thing is that the person who is also responsible to an extent is you and me, the customer. We have lost sight of the food supply chains.  We allowed this to happen by constantly demanding and expecting cheap food without a thought for the consequences of those low prices.  Time and time again we have been promised things by businesses and governments, who work hand in hand.  And they never happen.  Governments give up their responsibilities to “liberalise markets” and look what happens.  It was all grimly inevitable.  Instead of moaning about the loss of our high streets and the businesses that operated there, sourcing from local suppliers whilst we pushed out trollies down those brightly lit aisles, why don’t we actually look at where we spend our money and buy accordingly.  It can be more expensive if you buy the fancy meats but there’s plenty of good meat and veg that doesn’t cost the earth.  And if you allow the farmers to sell their dirty and knobbly vegetables you’ll get good quality, authentic food that’s cheaper and just as healthy, if not healthier.

There.  Finished. [/Rant]


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