Saturday, 16 February 2013

Are we saddled with the meat we deserve?

The current food scare in the UK concerning the presence of horse meat in the human food chain is a perfect scandal for our time. Here in Britain there is no tradition of eating horse, and the average person regards it as something akin to cannibalism to tuck in to dear old Neddy.  In this country, after all, charities find it easier to raise money for donkeys than for starving children.  Of course horse meat per se is perfectly safe for human consumption and it is widely sold and eaten elsewhere in Europe.   That’s why the government has been keen to paint this as a ‘food labeling’ issue rather than a concern over ‘food safety’.  The trouble with that argument is that if you don’t know what’s going in to your food you really can’t claim that it’s perfectly safe to eat can you?
But what makes this story perfect is the cast of potential villains. They chime perfectly with current social and political prejudices.
Owen Patterson, Secretary of State
for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
To start with, the Eurosceptic Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, initially tried to put the blame on our European partners and therefore somehow obliquely on the EU itself.
First he pointed the finger of blame at France, a well-known nation  of horse munchers. Then the search for a culprit spread to Romania, already in the spotlight as we brace ourselves for a new wave, or is a tsunami, of East European immigration.  First we get Romanian horse meat, he seemed to be implying, and then next year we get Romanian benefit scroungers!  He talked darkly of ‘an international criminal conspiracy’.  Europe’s a dangerous place. See what happens when we lose control of our borders?  This line of argument ended abruptly when horse meat was subsequently found entering the food chain at two British abattoirs.
Next up for blame was the dreaded quango.  Paterson has been quick to use the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as a shield.  The Tories have a long standing and non-specific antipathy to quangos, which undoubtedly includes the FSA.  Despite the fact that the number of FSA food inspectors has been halved since this government came to power, the minister has been quick to put primary responsibility for tackling the problem at their door.  In effect he has tried to use the agency to deflect attention from himself and the ministry.  Of course if the FSA fails to provide a solution, then it is just another indictment of quangos.
For the opposition, his Labour shadow Mary Creagh, has seen her profile boosted by the story.  She can rightly point out that this issue affects poor and low paid people disproportionately.  Mr Paterson might claim he would be prepared to eat a Findus lasagne, but nobody really believes that he ever has.  Government ministers earning £134,565 do not normally shop in the value range.  Somehow this story plays perfectly in to the Labour narrative of a government of toffs, out of touch with the needs of common people and primarily interested in helping their millionaire chums.  For some people no doubt, it’s a kind of sequel to ‘pastygate’.
Away from Westminster the argument has mainly been about the role of supermarkets and big food processors, already reviled for destroying high streets and small businesses, squeezing farmers, encouraging factory farming and raising food miles and CO2 emissions.  If you want to avoid horse meat in your burgers, goes one strand of the debate, go back to your local family butcher.  He might even know the name of the cow he’s chopping up for your dinner.
That argument is silly and insulting to many people who might be time poor as well as cash poor.  Actually there is some evidence that consumers have been turning to prime cuts in the wake of the continuing horse meat saga, but for many that is not an option and it’s not a solution.  This blog is a big supporter of the concept of buying fresh, local produce from local farms through small scale shops and distributors, but there is no way we are going to turn back the clock to some bucolic vision of Britain taken from a Thomas Hardy novel.  Food is a global industry and factory processed food, supermarkets and the like are here to stay.  Even poor people have a right to expect that the food they buy is safe and corresponds to the description on the packaging.
In fact this whole episode is a symptom of the inexorable rise of world food prices.   I have blogged previously on how the global supply of farm land is largely static and how a world population of over 7 billion is responsible for a long term and continuous upward trend in food prices.  Meat is particularly expensive to produce, and with world fish stocks in decline protein is becoming especially expensive with increasing demand from a new aspirational middle classes emerging in countries such as China, India and the Gulf states.  The high price of beef present s opportunities for unscrupulous operators to make money.  It’s a perfect capitalist crime. Exactly what we should expect from the lightly regulated free-market.
The truth is, on this occasion, may be awkward and uncomfortable for Mr. Paterson and his political friends, but we’ve got all the wrong characters in the dock.

We stand a much better chance of controlling this nefarious trade with the help of our EU partners and Europe wide regulations and controls.  It’s actually a strong argument in favour of the EU.  Remember the whole thing came to light thanks to the Irish Food Safety Authority alerting their British counterparts to their findings.
Within Britain we need a robust, confident and well-resourced FSA to tackle the small but ever-present threat in our domestic industry.  Nobody but the secretary of state is convinced by the government’s preference for voluntary schemes, self-regulation and nudge theory.  proper regulation is not the dead hand of the state interfering with wealth creation, it is the foundation of a safe and well-respected industry.  Far from being a break on growth it can facilitate it.
And yes we need supermarkets to wield their enormous power in the interest of consumers.  Only the big retailers have the resources and the motivation to drive criminals out of the industry and provide the safeguards that the public demands.