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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Why the Tories' falling poll lead is believable

Jeremy Corbyn has fought a good campaign, while Theresa May's has been a series of duff notes.

Taxi for Theresa May? The first poll since the Manchester bombing is out and it makes for grim reading in CCHQ.

The numbers that matter: the Conservatives are on 43%, Labour on 38%, the Liberal Democrats are on 10%, while Ukip are way down on 4%. On a uniform swing, far from strengthening her hand, the PM would be back in office with a majority of just two.

Frankly a PM who has left so many big hitters in her own party out in the cold is not going to last very long if that result is borne out on 8 June. But is it right?

The usual caveats apply - it's just one poll, you'd expect Labour to underperform its poll rating at this point, a danger that is heightened because much of the party's surge is from previous non-voters who are now saying they will vote for Jeremy Corbyn. There's a but coming, and it's a big one: the numbers make a lot of sense.

Jeremy Corbyn has fought a good campaign and he's unveiled a series of crowd-pleasing policies. The photographs and clips of him on the campaign trail look good and the party's messaging has been well-honed for television and radio. And that's being seen in the Labour leader's popularity ratings, which have risen throughout the campaign.

Theresa May's campaign, however, has been a series of duff notes that could have been almost designed to scare off voters. There was the biggie that was the social care blunder, of course. But don't underestimate the impact that May's very public support for bringing back fox-hunting had on socially liberal Conservative considerers, or the impact that going soft on banning the sale of ivory has in a nation of animal-lovers. Her biography and style might make her more appealing to floating voters than David Cameron's did, but she has none of his instinctive sense of what it is that people dislike about the Tory party - and as a result much of her message has been a series of signals to floating voters that the Tory party isn't for them.

Add that to the fact that wages are falling - no governing party has ever increased its strength in the Commons in a year when that has been the case - and the deterioration of the public realm, and the question becomes: why wouldn't Labour be pulling into contention?

At the start of the campaign, the Conservatives thought that they had two insurance policies: the first was Jeremy Corbyn, and the second was May's purple firewall: the padding of her lead with voters who backed Ukip in 2015 but supported the Conservatives in the local elections. You wouldn't bet that the first of those policies hadn't been mis-sold at this point. Much now hinges on the viability of the second.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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