Horsemeat scandal: it's all in the supply chains

You reap what you sow.

Up until very recently, most of us would have confidently asserted that we had never eaten horsemeat in our lives. Today, our responses would likely be more hesitant as we think back over the various processed products we have consumed. In many ways, this is the very essence of the current crisis: the adulteration of meat has left us highly uncertain about what we are consuming; if products contain extraneous horsemeat what else might be hiding within?

This erosion of confidence and trust has serious implications for both the retail and food processing industries. Consumers have already reacted swiftly, ditching brands and products tainted by the scandal, with many rediscovering the local butchers they once abandoned in favour of the big supermarket chains. As new developments come to light, we should expect to see habits change still further.

Retailers will be thankful for the fact that the crisis is now of such scope and scale that blame has been dispersed over a wide area with no one in particular in the crosshairs. However, we should not allow the diffused nature of the situation to become an excuse for doing nothing. Indeed, the truth is that while the modern food supply chain might be complex and intricate, the roots of the matter are fairly self evident.

Despite being concentrated into the hands of relatively few players, food retailing in most western nations, and especially in the UK, remains highly competitive. In recent years this has intensified for two main reasons. Firstly, commodity inflation allied with the downturn has made the consumer far more price sensitive and has opened up a new battleground focusing on value. Secondly, following massive space expansion over recent years the market is now fairly saturated; with little organic growth this has resulted in each player trying to grab share from its neighbour while at the same time defending its own. Ultimately, both of these dynamics have resulted in a relentless focus on driving down prices to create competitive advantage.

Modern consumers have been beneficiaries of this focus; food bills today are much lower than they were 50 years ago. So, lower prices per se are not necessarily a bad thing. What is critical, however, is how those low prices are attained. When they arise from improved efficiency or scientific advances then the overall impact is generally a positive one. When they arise from exerting too much pressure on suppliers or from reducing checking and transparency then the impact can be catastrophically negative.

In the early days of reducing prices retailers tended to make savings from efficiency gains but now most of these have been extracted eking out further savings can really only come from one place: cutting corners. The pressure to trim every possible cost is enormous and the whole supply chain from farm to fork is now so tight that it was probably only a matter of time before a crisis arose. In other words, this is more than an accident; it is a direct consequence of the behaviours within the industry.

As the final link in the supply chain, retailers must bear the responsibility for what is sold. However, there is arguably another actor who is also liable: the consumer. Buying food is not discretionary; it’s something we all need to do, and do regularly. As such, it accounts for a very large proportion (around 45 per cent) of all that we spend on retail. If we can reduce the amount we spend during our weekly grocery shop then we have more scope to buy other more exciting consumer goods; so, we happily laden up our trolleys with value ready meals and cheap cuts of meat in order than we can shave a bit off our bill. How many of us, though, really thought about that 99p ready meal and asked “is this really too good to be true?” The answer is not nearly enough of us.

None of this is to excuse retailers or manufactures, but it does open up an important question about the current realism in terms of economics within the food industry. Part of solving this matter and guaranteeing, as far as possible, food which is free from contaminants has to be the acceptance of higher prices. Notably, when we talk about higher prices we are not talking about massive hikes but a few pence here and there. Certainly, that’s unwelcome in the current economic environment but it is a necessary price to pay.

Will consumers wear it? Their reaction to horsemeat suggests that they probably will. The fact that many are already buying more expensive foods or using butchers which charge a little more suggests there has been a subtle shift in attitude. Will retailers wear it? Arguably they should; being the cheapest at all costs may well bring some short term market share gains, but if it ultimately undermines long term confidence in the brand it becomes something of an own goal.

The bottom line is that when it comes to food prices the old farming adage is as true now as it ever was: you reap what you sow.

Photograph: Getty Images

 Managing Director of Conlumino

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.