Somewhere in the confluence of cultural norms, modern supply chains, and economic imperative lies the latest discovery that supermarkets across Europe have been selling ground beef contaminated with horsemeat. And we use the term “contaminated” only in the sense that the product sold as beef was in fact, not 100% from bovines.
The Skinny (Cow)? The Food Safety Authority of Ireland chain reported in January 2013 that some beef burgers were found to contain equine DNA. A cascading series of investigations and revelations led to massive product recalls, pervasive finger-pointing, and predictably horrified reactions from consumers who thought they may have dined on Grand National participants.
The reactions of Britons may seem curious to those who eat horsemeat as social custom, or for those who can’t afford to be too choosy as to where their protein comes from. After all, we make pets out of guinea pigs in most places, but they are a national delicacy in Bolivia. One man’s toy is another man’s meal. The debate can always be joined about what we do and don’t eat. But there is another story here and that has to do with truth in labeling and the intense pressure placed on suppliers by retailers.
Regulators acknowledge that adulteration of food is a major problem. Consumers need to be confident that basmati rice is basmati rice, cognac is cognac, beef is beef. The incentive to do this exists in any market, diluting products for financial gain works equally as well for drug dealers as it does for TESCO. We can’t make informed purchasing choices as to value and cost when manufacturers misrepresent contents to the degree demonstrated in this incident. It is incumbent on health officials to stay in the saddle on this one.
Suppliers blame the relentless demand by retailers for lower prices, just-in-time inventory, unreasonable price expectations, and razor thin margins for the debacle. Things go horribly wrong when everyone expects so much and consumers are shocked, shocked! that manufacturers cut corners. A disingenuous argument, but one that resonates among farmers who feel they are often on the wrong end of the pony.
Puns about runaway costs and retailers riding producers aside (insert rim-shot here), food fraud is no laughing matter.