The poor are buying cheap burgers of questionable origin thanks to a flawed system
How you respond to the horsemeat burger story will depend upon who you are. If you’re wealthy enough not to have to buy the stuff, it will be with a sigh of contempt and an exasperated roll of the eyes. If you’re an executive from one of the implicated supermarkets, it will be with sweaty panic. And if you’re one of those forced, through economic circumstance, to shop in the value ranges, it will probably be with a deadened sense of despair. Food is emotional and stories about it make people react emotionally. But emotion does not help explain why something like this could happen.
For that, you have to look to the hard, unemotional logic of economics. It is about the global commodity that food has become and it is about the way the British supermarkets have consolidated power in the market place to deal with that commoditisation. None of these things made last week’s headline-grabber inevitable. But they did make it seriously likely and there will be other scandals like it in years to come unless the major retailers change their ways.
This tale falls into two distinct parts: the presence of pork and/or horse DNA in trace amounts, found in 23 of the 27 Irish and British manufactured beefburger products that were tested, and the one Tesco product found to contain a significant amount – 29% – of horse meat. Both have the same underlying cause. While supermarket bosses insist they have stringent systems in place to guarantee product quality, what they will not discuss is the impact of the brutal deals they enforce upon the companies that manufacture those products for them.
The manufacturers do not want to talk publicly about it either, for fear of enraging their key customers. Privately, however, they regularly report being forced to sell to the supermarkets at break-even or below the cost of production or risk being de-listed. They’ll do anything to avoid being de-listed because once off the shelves it’s a massive struggle to get back on. As a result, they’ll take the deals, and the financial hit, in the hope that the price will pick up in the future. And it’s when money gets tight that corners are cut.
Investigations are continuing, but many sources in the industry now believe the trace DNA elements entered the products through the use of protein powders, employed both to bulk up the protein content and to help burgers retain moisture (which means you can sell water). The idea of protein powders is not intrinsically bad: if we are going to bang animals on the head, we have a moral responsibility to use every last scrap, however distasteful the more gastronomically minded may find it. The problem is that their production requires the denaturing of animal products to such a degree that only chemical analysis can detect where they originated. And as the same plants grind myriad different animals, cross-contamination is always possible, especially when profit margins have been cut to the metaphorical bone.
Certainly the refusal by Dr Duncan Campbell, head of the UK’s leading food control laboratory, to accept the Food Standards Agency’s reassurances that there is no threat to human health, makes sense. ‘Until we know what the source is of the ‘horse’ or ‘something derived from horse’ that has been found in the beef products,’ he said, ‘we cannot be sure there is no food safety risk.’
The potential appearance of actual horse meat in burgers is a separate issue and that’s down to the cost of beef, which has reached historic highs. According to Index Mundi, which tracks commodity prices into the US, the current deadweight price for beef – the whole carcass – has just hit the equivalent of £2.75 a kilo, close to a price doubling in just four years.
It’s a similar story in this country. According to Eblex, the trade organisation for the beef industry, the key measure for top quality beef prices has gone from just over £2 a kilo in 2006 to £3.77 a kilo last week. As ever, that’s a function of supply and demand. Most beef animals are fed on grain. In 2008, massive price spikes in the cost of corn and soya presented beef farmers with major cash flow problems. Feeding their animals had just become too expensive. As a result, vast numbers sent not only their prime beef animals, but also their breeding herds, to slaughter.
Five years on and there is a shortage of new beef animals, combined with an uplift in demand for meat from emerging economies. Compared with beef, horse meat, the majority of which comes from South America and the near continent, is a bargain. According to a report last year by FranceAgriMer, the French state agriculture body, it trades globally at about £1.85 a kilo. Many in the meat processing industry believe non-domestic suppliers may have been sending over batches of horse meat marked as beef. On Friday, the ABP Food Group, one of the companies armpit deep in the scandal, confirmed that its investigations are “centred around two third-party continental suppliers”. The price difference in a tight market would have made such a switch irresistible.
At which point, the foodie middle classes bellow that this simply emphasises the importance of provenance; of knowing where your food has come from. It was part of an unpleasant discourse, played out across social media and radio chat shows last week, which insisted that anybody who bought these adulterated burger products got all they deserved. It’s distasteful in so many ways. An interest in provenance is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Nobody shops in the supermarket value ranges out of choice, and to suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the dynamic of poverty. Likewise, criticising people for not making the effort to craft all their food from scratch is to fail to recognise that some people aren’t just cash poor. They are time poor, too.
Yes, there is an ideal food model, one that does indeed involve knowing where all your ingredients come from, and making all your food yourself, but some people simple can’t afford that ideal. They are left at the mercies of a supermarket business that pursues the bottom line with such violence, and such terrible carelessness, that the wrong animals end up in the wrong cheap burgers.
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