Does what is says on the tin’?

Exactly five years ago, we woke up to discover that some of the most well-known retail and foodservice chains had put horsemeat on the menu without us knowing [see here]. Questions were asked, fingers were pointed – and journalists had a field day.

For someone who loves puns, I’ll admit to chuckling at one or two of the horse and burger related newspaper headlines that followed in the coming weeks. “Shergar ‘n fries” was probably my favourite. However, as someone that wants to see a food system based on integrity, clearly food fraud is no laughing matter. While to my knowledge there was no physical harm to people caused by the horsemeat scandal, there was a lot of psychological damage and cultural offence done.

We can debate the role of different contentious technologies until the cows (not horses) come home. However, people being able to trust that they are eating what they think they are eating should surely be a given. We should be able to trust that it ‘does what it says on the tin’ – or the label, or the menu.

What changed after the horsemeat scandal?

The short-term impacts of the horsemeat scandal included Tesco losing an initial £300 million of its market value (with other brands affected too), beef sales falling 3% in 2013 and trust in certain food brands declining. But as time passed, confidence amongst the public rebounded back. So, did ‘horsegate’ matter and what has changed since?

Some of the recommendations of the subsequent Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks were implemented, most notably the setting up of the National Food Crime Unit within the Food Standards Agency.

I asked our Council members for their insights on ‘horsegate’ five years on and I share some of these with you here. We don’t have all the answers, but we’d welcome your views on lessons learned and what you think needs to happen.

‘If you don’t look, you don’t see…’

“Material from another species is very easy to detect…. The food chain wasn’t looking”, said one Council member. Another noted that the response from supermarkets for beef has been to shorten supply chains and source only from British and Irish producers, but there are still other food supply chains which are vulnerable. Turning a blind eye to least-cost food supply chains is fraught with risk. Proper scrutiny and regular monitoring is vital. The National Food Crime Unit needs to be taken more seriously and needs further investment.

“People need to know their suppliers”

How can we reduce the likelihood of such a scandal happening again? “People need to know their suppliers, that’s all” said one Council member. What we need is “trust and transparency” – and long-term supplier relationships. As recent stories about chicken have highlighted, there is still a long way to go. As another Council member noted, “Clearly any supply chain could fall victim to food fraud, but shorter, more scrutinised supply chains and attention to provenance reduce the risk.”

Our current food systems are vulnerable because of the prevailing ‘Consumer Mindset’

In the current food system dominated by the consumer mindset, the government’s role is largely limited to preventing the worst abuses of individual consumer rights, and the only signals government feels it should respond to are consumer choice. In such a brand-dominated world, the public often feel distant from producers, whilst producers are under relentless pressure from brands to cut costs. Hence, incentives on producers to commit food fraud are increasing, while the Government does not have the funds to keep up with tech-savvy fraud. These add up to something approaching the ‘perfect storm’, meaning the food system is vulnerable to food fraud and adulteration in the future.

Underlying causes not properly addressed

Whilst there has been progress in some areas, the underlying causes have not been dealt with. It is the longstanding push for ever cheaper food that pressured shortcuts to be taken and food to be adulterated. We need to shift away from the notion that cheap food is desirable. Attempts to ‘rebuild consumer confidence’ are ultimately flawed without changing the underlying problems.

As one of our Council members notes, the horsemeat scandal was “like the 2008 financial crisis – a major disruption that had some constructive response – but without addressing the deep systemic causes, and therefore food fraud is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off again.”

Involving citizens

A food system built on food brands and government retrospectively ‘repairing’ consumer confidence is fragile at best. We believe that instead adopting a Food Citizenship Mindset will allow us to shape a resilient food system together.

At different parts of the food system, there are ways that the public can help to build trust and to reduce the risk of food fraud. That might involve producers developing more direct relationships with the general public, to make food chains more visible and open. It might also be government agencies working in more participatory ways with citizens through citizen science projects.There is a lot we can all do.

A Food Citizenship approach makes us more likely to be able to trust our food than thinking of ourselves as consumers who sit at one end of often long, complex, opaque supply chains. The food fraud time bomb will continue to tick unless we diffuse it. We are best doing that together.