So this week we had the story about horse meat being found in ‘beef burgers’ produced for a number of supermarkets in the UK and Ireland. Cue for everybody to go “eugh!” followed by a debate about whether there’s anything wrong with eating horses (and why) or about whether horse meat was good for you.
All of which is to miss the point. What really matters about the horse in those burgers is that it wasn’t beef! Or perhaps more precisely, it wasn’t on the label. The story is about the ability of retailers – especially large powerful retailers – to underwrite the content of the products they sell. That strikes me as a pretty key attribute of a retail brand that sells food.
The stories should also distinguish between two scenarios; one where “some horse DNA” was found in a burger and one where “horse” was found to constitute 20% of a ‘beef burger’.
In the first case we may only be talking about traces – picked up in a processing plant, or maybe included via components like gelatine. This is the story that reminds us how difficult it is to track every element of a global supply chain, including ingredients which are themselves already processed, when you are making products on a large scale. This is a generic issue, and one where you expect manufacturers to take reasonable steps whilst recognising the practical limits. This is the world of “May contain traces of nut”, with some sharing of risk with the consumer. Perhaps we now have to add, “May contain traces of horse” or “May contain traces of just about anything for all we know – including things which offend your ethics, your religion, or your immune system”.
In the second case you are talking about something which constitutes a significant ingredient. Enough meat to make up 20% of the mass of a batch of burgers is not something you overlook. Somebody, somewhere, must knowingly introduce horse into the process, or successfully pass off horse meat as beef.In this case the story is really about the role of the retail brand in policing its suppliers – ensuring that it knows, and sometimes that they know, what is going into the product that they sell.
Assuming, and there’s neither evidence nor a sane motive to suggest otherwise, that the supermarkets didn’t know there was horse in the beef burgers they put on their shelves, the onus is now on them to earn more trust by having systems and relationships in place to make the processing and supply chain transparent. This week’s story has perhaps shown that they need to up their game in this respect – replacing B2B supplier trust with more frequent and direct forms of audit, and probably incurring more cost along the way. It may even make us sympathise a little with supermarkets when suppliers complain that they are intrusive and dictatorial!
Finally, there’s a paradox here. As I understand it, the burgers in question were predominantly supermarket own brand products. If they were burgers from big household names, there would be a sharing of embarrassment between them and the retailers. You would forgive the supermarket more for relying on the ability of reputational risk to keep a famous food brand on its toes. It would be “shame on them”, as much as shame on the supermarket. But the products you hold a retailer most responsible for are surely those on which they choose to stamp their own label – their promise to you. Yet aren’t these are often the cheaper, ‘value’, white label products which make fewer implicit promises and are likely to contain lower percentages of prime product [beef!], less premium cuts of that product, higher proportions of filler, and more flavourings and texturing to counteract that? Those seem to be the products at most risk from ambiguity – be that ‘traces of’, or 20%!
Will you now be expecting the big name supermarkets to tell you more, in general and on specific product labelling, about how they ensure that food carrying their brand contains only what it says on the label? Will you be a little more likely to turn to food producers who can tell a great story about what, and only what, is in their products, where it came from and how certain they are about that?
Or was it really just about horses after all? A bit of Anglo Saxon squeamish sentimentality about what we eat, already fading away? After that does it go back to being all about price, in straitened times, and a case of “what I don’t know won’t hurt me … mostly” ?