Were two private equity buyouts the real cause of the horse meat scandal?

A series of buyouts went all the way up the food chain.

A note on the horse meat scandal that only seems to have flagged up so far: Findus, the most recent company under fire for horsemeat-contaminated products, was bought out by private equity firm Lion Capital in 2008.

Private equity firms make companies more efficient then re-sell, turning a profit in the process. They are also known for piling the companies they buy with debt and forcing them into radical cost-cutting measures - and a quick scan of Findus's last half decade suggests this is exactly what happened here. Findus struggled after the buyout, and recently needed a £220m cash injection to stay afloat. It was also forced into "major restructuring" last year. Was there a point at which using cheaper meat became necessary?

On Friday attention turned to Comigel - the company that supplies meat to Findus, as well as Aldi, another company which is even now hastily clearing its shelves of "mislabelled" bolognaise and lasangne. Surprise, surprise: in 2007, Comigel was bought by French private equity firm Céréa Capital.

Private equity firms are used to being the villain of the piece: post 2008, some argued that their penchant for cheap credit would be the cause of the next financial crisis. It's not all bad though - as this Moody's report suggests, companies which have been bought out are much more likely to survive when the going gets tough.

But the key point here is that some companies can't afford to be radically restructured to the point at which the product is compromised. And this includes food companies. Forget DNA tests - we should be keeping an eye out for food with chains of bought-out companies in their supply lines - that's where the next food scandal'll come from.

Horse meat scandal could be rooted in private equity. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.