Horses for courses

Cheap, fast and low maintenance meals come at a price, and all wrapped up in the irony that it can cost the consumer so little. The horsemeat scandal has quickly become a complex case of finger pointing, government statements and endless horse puns, while officials, supermarkets and the catering industry wait for the final test results with bated breath.

The events of the past few weeks could be what this country has needed for a long time – we’re all so used to living in an era of cheap food, so readily available at a price point to suit our budget. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that the formula of meat plus low cost equals lower quality. Critics will say those who eat processed meats get what they deserve, but many simply don’t have the freedom of choice. And so in selecting well known household brands like Findus, Nestlé and the supermarket ranges, consumers have felt this choice could be trusted. But the whole tale lifts a shady curtain, revealing pressures on the supply chain, its length, and the consequences of demand. The horsemeat scandal could be finally revealing to an all-ears national audience that our meat-heavy diets simply cannot be reflected by the mass production supply chain at the price we want it.

Not only has equine DNA in our fresh and frozen ‘beef’ meals uncovered an international food scandal, it has hit a major trust nerve consumers hold with supermarkets. Now food safety is an issue, and inquiries into bute have instigated a moral panic the Food Standards Agency has been keen to calm. As such, the convenience we’ve been offered for years in the safe environment between supermarket shelves has now been compromised. One million households have stopped buying frozen burgers according to insights firm Nielsen, while research from ComRes says 31% of us have packed in the ready meals. That processed meats have become a commodity so many have come to rely on, be it for convenience or price, such action speaks volumes for those who are still time and money-poor. The industry’s dirty little secret won’t fool us any more.

Local traders are experiencing a silver lining to the scandal, however, with countless headlines of ‘business booming for butchers’. And Morrisons has found a second-time around appreciation for its own supply chain, which buys its meat direct from the farm under its farm-to-fork policy – a blueprint Waitrose recently announced it will be replicating. Responsibly sourced and locally reared – aren’t these the arguments those so-called green-thumbed, organic-loving, vegetable-growing loons the critics love to hate have been barking on about for years?

In more recent developments, the FSA announced late on Tuesday it’s extending testing across products where beef is the main ingredient, including fresh steak and mince, prepared kebabs, beef dripping and stock cubes. The results are due on 25 February, and if found positive, it will blow the human food chain open to even more intense scrutiny. The notion the scandal is purely confined to processed foods on account for meeting low costs will be no more.

Slack regulation has led us to this point. An EU directive issued in 2006 that moved the onus of food safety checks from governments to producers has been blamed, and the FSA has come under fire for recently suggesting on-site regulation be relaxed. Tesco has said it will give shoppers insight into its global supply list, but we must be assured that if not self-regulated, the supermarkets – and right down to where their supply chain begins – should undergo a governmental deep clean with transparent results. Only then can we return to shopping with confidence, and cross horse off our list.

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