By Mike Small
There’s been a lot of talk about ‘re-establishing trust’ in the food system. But that’s probably the last thing we need to be doing.
What we’re living through is a time when institutions and old systems are failing, old certainties falling by the wayside. Some call it ‘collapsonomics’. It’s a moment of opportunity for real change but only if we examine what’s going on and resist the spin and deflection as the system attempts to inoculate itself against real change.
Today Rob Edwards writing for the Sunday Herald reveals that the sampling of food to ensure that it is safe to eat has plummeted more than one-third in Scotland over the last four years, as safety inspectors have lost their jobs and public spending has been slashed.
Will Hutton writing in the Observer notes (‘The meat scandal shows all that is rotten about our free marketeers‘):
“The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.
Owen Paterson, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, is living through such a nightmare and is utterly lost. All his once confident beliefs are being shredded. As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from “wealth-destroying” regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.”
The first thing is to recognise that this is a fundamental shock to a basic tenet of our society: do we know that our food is okay to eat? Four weeks in to the latest food crisis, and the reality is, we really don’t. Thirty years of ‘slash red-tape’ orthodoxy has left us eating horses.
Business response to the meat crisis has been predictable. The narrative has gone from “it’s a trace sample” to “it’s a rogue batch” to “it’s probably the Irish” to “it’s foreign criminals” and everything in-between. The PM called it a ‘problem of labelling’. Now it’s clear it’s not one burger, not one batch, not one product, not one supermarket, not one country. It’s a system failure.
So re-establishing trust must be about actually changing the food system that’s falling part before our eyes so that it’s open, transparent and democratic, not just a PR exercise from desperate meat salesmen. That’s all we’ve been getting so far. The first thing Tesco did was take full page newspaper adverts reassuring everybody everything was ok before they knew what was going on. In its advertisement, with the headline “We Apologise”, Tesco said: “We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise. People in our country will have been very concerned to read this morning that when they thought they were buying beefburgers they were buying something that had horse meat in it. So here’s our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we’ll come back and tell you.”
Actually Tesco, here’s our promise. How about we find out exactly what happened and get back to you? Findus immediately employed Burson Marsteller, one of most reviled public relations agencies due to its mercenary attitude in choosing clients and contracts. So far as the debate remains framed as a PR exercise to con the public back into eating vast quantities of processed meats, the task must be not to ‘re-establish trust’ but to establish a fundamental distrust in a system that is failing us.
Incredibly, the FSA has been asking, Tesco-style, for companies to get back to them. It’s a hopeless response from an agency that has been left with its credibility in tatters. The picture revealed today of the widespread re-regulation of the food industry reflects the same light-touch regulation that brought us Leveson and the banking crisis. It represents a massive failure in public accountability. The Food Standards Agency was itself eviscerated by the coalition government as part of the Conservatives’ “bonfire of the quangos”. Its previous chief executive Tim Smith is now Tesco’s technical director.
If we really want to change things we need to not just change regulation of the supply chain, we need to regain control of retail. Tesco alone now controls over 30% of the grocery market in the UK. In 2012, the supermarket chain announced profits of £3.8bn. Growing evidence indicates that Tesco’s success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers and workers worldwide, local shops and the environment. There are just over 8,000 supermarkets in the UK, and they account for 97% of total grocery sales. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons together take 76% of that market. Their share of non-food retailing currently stands at 14%, a figure up by 75% since 2003.
There’s nothing to trust in a system that has allowed the wholesale corporate capture of our food culture and there’s no evidence that self-regulation works. Why should it?
At the heart of this story isn’t just a globalised food system where responsibility is endlessly outsourced. At the heart of this story is a profound disrespect for all involved. From live animals transported as products, to a society in which the upper echelons enjoy fine dining while the poorest eat horses and donkeys, and our response is horse jokes, business as usual or swallowing spin.
The last thing we need to do is to re-establish trust.
What we need are shorter supply chains, a re-evaluation of our whole relationship with the non-human world, a transparent food system that we have (some) control of and a re-localised economy that doesn’t further wreck the planet. That, and to raise our expectations about what we eat.