Where’s the Beef?

I don’t think I’ve eaten horse … well not knowingly. I’ve tried my fair share of the weird and wonderful in my travels (rattlesnake, alligator, zebra, warthog, various of Bambi’s relatives, squirrel, assorted insects), and some of it has been enjoyable, but horse has never reared its head, knowingly. I don’t see the point of having horse, unless you know it’s horse you are eating. And that’s at the root of this current scandal – what is in the food we eat?

Labels on food can be confusing things – just try working out what product is better for you if you want to control your sugar, fat or salt. And as for some of the components, whether E numbers or not, who knows what some of them are, even if you can spell the words. But when it says 100% beef, you sort of expect it to be 100% beef – and not 100% horse, 29% pork or 10% some other animal barely on nodding acquaintance with a cow.

At the moment it looks like the problem lies with a criminal conspiracy to pass off cheaper horse as more expensive beef in processed products and meals … but we do not yet know for certain. Currently it is a labelling issue, not a health issue, though there is that nagging feeling over “bute” and questions over what other corners were cut or rules avoided. If you are calling horse, beef, then what else might you get up to?

So what might we take from this? Well it is easy to pin the blame on the lack of testing and checking. If you put your name to a product then you need to take ownership of its quality. But can we test everything and could tests be avoided by the unscrupulous? We need more testing, but it’s not perfect. So we might instead look to better traceability for the consumer, which means shorter supply chains – will this prove a boost to British and local farmers and local butchers and retailers? But let’s remember there are British producers under investigation here already. Getting closer to the producers is important but asking questions of where stuff comes from and what’s in a product seems sensible, and maybe our rights need to be strengthened here?

The media may also have a role to play, but they are ambiguous at best at the moment. We need investigative journalism in this area, but how does that square with the constant commentary calling for ever lower prices? How can we get “value” to mean the right thing and not just the cheapest? And why has the focus been on labeling, which is a choice issue, when “contamination” with pork infringes religious beliefs rather than simply choice sensibilities?

And that issue of choice and what we each consume came back to me at the end of the week in another context, as I read about the opening of the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on an out of town retail park in Edinburgh last week. Three mile tailbacks for several days, police called to control the traffic, and £60K spent at the store on Day One.  Now Scots like sweet things, but this is a bit extreme even by our standards, especially at upwards of 350 calories per doughnut. Now where did I put that box of 12 by the way?

So where’s the problem here? Beef that is criminally horse or doughnuts that pile on the pounds? We knowingly munch our way through things that are not good for us, all the time, despite what we might read on the label. Perhaps it is time we really thought about these choices, and their consequences, and recalibrated our relationships with some food stuffs, whether doughnuts or locally produced meat.

At least let’s hope that these Americans at Krispy Kreme are intending to pay their fair share of taxes – the NHS in Edinburgh might need a boost in revenue soon.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues.
This entry was posted in Consumers, Diet and Health, Doughnuts, Food, Food Quality, Labelling, Local Retailers, Retail Parks, Slow Food, Supply Chains, Tax and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Where’s the Beef?

  1. I’ve been really anxious about the Scottish (and UK) direction of travel ever since my first visits to Florida and Texas USA some years ago. My partner had to actually warn me about my unintentional gawping at what were starting to be termed morbidly obese people. The proportions of these poor folks and the sheer numbers of them really made an impression on me. My conclusion were that the place of easy junk food in the culture and the sheer abundance and cheapness of it were at the heart of the problems. The consumption of ‘easy’ food was a major activity and source of distraction and relief ( I also mentally ruminated on the strange obssesiing with modern and pretty intolerant forms of religion in the USA – somehow seemed to me to be another aspect of an infantilised culture?).

    How we counter all that I have no idea at present – but the obesity factor seems increasingly apparent here in Scotland. On a more immediate and practical level I find that the horsemeat scandal yet again raises the evergreen issue in the UK of ‘what was the regulator doing, what have we got a regulator for?’. The Food Agency differs only from the Financial Services Authority in that the FSA was found wanting all in one big collapse (1007/08 et al). The Food Agency seems to be carrying on a very long UK tradition of a regulatory to closely tied to the producers and in more recent times the big retailers).

    Hope for the future maybe? – I though the Chief Executive of the Cooperaaive played a blinder on the horsemeat scandal. He alone stood up and said on national TV, “this is our [big retail] problem and we need to speak to the consumer”. The hope for the future is that the origins of the Cooperative in the UK lay, not in any great collective socialist endeavour (sorry to some of the left-leaning regulars in the Dukes Road coffee shop) – rather it was because of the need to combat the gross adulteration and even poisoning of food by producers and retailers. Perhaps we need navigate a way back to such an endeavour? (Not the first time the cooperative concept has recently cropped up in this blog)

    By the way, did your hear about the Tesco burger that went into the pub and quietly asked for a pint? The barman said I can’t hear you! The burger said “I’m sorry I’m a wee bit horse”.

    • Leigh Sparks says:

      I thought you were going to ask if I’d heard the one about the horse that went into a pub only to be refrused service by the baman – “we don’t serve food”.

      I am not sure about what Peter Marks said – was he basically saying leave it all us to up as the Co-op, we’ll do all the testing, now we know there’s a problem. Is this not the government/regulator passing the buck over and reducing costs? Which gets me back to what as a society do we value?

  2. My recollection of what Peter Marks was saying was that it was essentially addressed to big retail itself with the line of reasoning being “it’s our system that’s not working, we can’t just say nothing, we need more openness and transparency to get the consumer back on board…” He didn’t, if I recall properly, offer anything more specific. I think that was OK given that at that stage big retail had just brought the shutters down and was saying virtually nothing.

    I read online today that Iceland is following up its blaming local authorities for having ’caused’ the scandal (i.e demanding lowest possible process from suppliers to schools and hospitals) by now stepping up a gear today with a combative line of ‘our food is all OK’ We have also had in recent days a (for me) mildly sanctimonious TV adds from Morrisons are meantime seeking to convince us how they go walk-about in the fields with each of their local farmers so they know their beef is all beef. Hmm… doesn’t bode well for ‘more openness and transparency’ if big supermarket retail is going to play games like ’nuffin to do with us guv’ and ‘its all the government’s fault guv’. All reminds me of the utter failure of the entire British beef industry in the face of BSE (albeit the scale, health issues and nature of the problem are wholly different).

  3. Pingback: From the Horse’s Mouth? | Stirlingretail

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