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Saturday, 16 February 2013

On Horsemeat, Bullshit and Regulation‏

In a recent post on the "horse-meat scandal", Tim Atkin insinuates that the cause of the issue is overly-aggressive price negotiations by supermarkets.

Now, I have a huge respect for Tim as a wine writer - but I cannot agree with his conclusions here as valid.

He argues that "when major multiples screw suppliers on price, they shouldn't be surprised if they are forced to cut corners".

That's a bit like suggesting that professional wine-writing pays so badly that it's alright if you just make it all up.

Well it isn't - in either case: if you have entered into a contract with another party, you have every right to expect them to meet the terms of that contract (whether you are buying processed beef or wine journalism). That's the basis of the rule of law.

It is not valid to argue that you substituted horse meat for beef - or that you just made up your winemaker interview - because you felt you weren't being paid enough money; that's the behaviour of three-year-olds "Daddy, you made me do it !".

I have worked in an oversupplied service industry for long enough now to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a tough price negotiation. But everyone has their walk-away point and once a contract is signed, it forms a binding commitment on both parties.

So, why is there horse meat labelled as beef ? Because someone put it there in breach of contract.

How come it was not discovered for so long ? Due to a failure of regulation; if meat samples had been analysed more thoroughly, this would have been picked up much more quickly.

So, rather than blaming the "major multiples", we need to look at the person who committed the act and the person whose job it was both to prevent and detect illegal activity - the abattoirs and the food standards regulators.

At this point, we can add in the context that there may well be very aggressive price negotiation by the buyers of these products which makes rule-breaking more likely. But we can also add in the unwillingness of the public to pay more for their food.

This, however, is no more than context and backdrop - it is wrong to put it forward as cause and effect.

Headlines about food safety sell newspapers and add to the media frenzy, but at its base, this is a story about contract compliance and enforcement.

Yes, it says something about us as a Society that we perhaps focus on price above quality - think about that when you are doing your next weekly shop - but if we buy products from a supermarket labelled as beef, we have a right to expect to be made from beef. And to be safe for us to eat.

As a joke that did the rounds on twitter suggested - if you have an economy ready-meal lasagna in your freezer, take a long hard look at your life and think where it all went wrong; if you choose to buy cheap ready-meals labelled as beef, then you have a right to expect it to be beef and to be safe - but you you cannot expect it to taste nice.

So the discussion about "major multiples" and the behaviour and willingness of consumers to pay is merely a distraction, or at best a different subject to be considered separately. As a former boss used to tell me, once you have the real cause, the solution becomes obvious. This is a compliance and regulation issue - not an excuse to bash business.

So, once again, why is there horse meat in food labelled as beef ? Because of a failure of regulation; so the solution then is better and more effective regulation of our food supply chain.

This may well lead to food becoming more expensive overall, but so be it - right now, our food is arguably too cheap.

Other related articles
Juel Mahoney's Wine Riot
On Intellectual Property

Tim Atkin - website, twitter

Image credit: http://www.scriptmag.com/wp-content/uploads/no-bullshit.jpg

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