The Shergar burgers story tells us its time to look again at supermarket regulation

by Peter Watt

This may end up being a bit of a rant so apologies.  Horsemeat, or rather horsemeat pretending to be beef in Tesco beef burgers; it was the rather shocking and grim story that we all awoke to earlier this week.  Much of the reaction surrounded the fact that the story related to the eating of horses – something we are culturally programmed not to do in our horse loving country.  I read several articles and countless tweets that explored the seeming contradiction inherent in our love of eating cows, pigs, chickens and sheep and so on – but not horses.  I also read a lot of jokes – my favourite being, “next time someone offers you a free burger, take it.  Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Now I don’t eat meat so I guess it’s easy to laugh, but then I saw this joke and it made me reflect:

“Those Aldi burgers were nice but I prefer my Lidl Pony”

It made me reflect because it suddenly clicked that the errant (mostly) beef burgers were part of the value range on offer by Tesco.  In other words they were from a range aimed at people on a budget.

I thought back a couple of weeks to a conversation I had had with a friend of mine who had hit a bit of bad luck recently.  As a result he and his family were seriously short of money and living on an incredibly tight budget.  He was telling me that they had bought some mince at a supermarket that was incredibly cheap and had used it to make a spaghetti Bolognese.  The meat was slightly odd looking raw and when cooked turned into a much reduced and gristly grey gloop.  It sounded pretty grim, but my friend had no choice but to buy this very cheap food if he was going to feed himself and his family.

But back to horsegate.  I started noticed that people were tweeting things like “this horse story is why I only ever make burgers from beef that I buy and mince myself.”  Or “it wouldn’t happen at Waitrose.” Now I have no idea whether it would happen at Waitrose but the point was that many people seemed pleased that they could pay to avoid eating that which they didn’t want to.  In this case horse.  Now I am certainly no class warrior (I suspect that this will not come as a shock to many!) but for me this pretty much misses the point of this story!  What are we saying here?  “It’s OK for poor people to eat crap as long as I don’t have to!”

It made my blood boil.  It is obvious that if you have wealth then you can buy more expensive food or eat at expensive restaurants.  You don’t expect to be able to dine on top range produce if you are living on a tight budget.  We all have to make choices depending on our available funds and the size of our family.  But we should all be able to expect that we can believe that when we go to the shop and buy food that we can trust what it says on the label.

If I choose to (or have to) buy cheap beef burgers then I should still be entitled to believe that I am buying beef.  I clearly don’t think that it is a burger made of minced rump from organically reared beef – but I am entitled to think that it is beef.  I have a contract with the shop when I purchase them – if I hand over the purchase price then I can take away the product as described on the packaging.  And what is more there is a legal framework that enforces minimum standards that protect in this regard and make sure that what I eat is safe.

Supermarkets have revolutionised the way that we buy our food, and increasingly much else besides.  Much of this change is good and has meant lower prices, a greater range of food and convenience.  And on the whole the system works well with many families living on a budget benefitting from their low prices.  Consumer pressure also plays its part in helping to regulate and police the system – as Tesco are probably about to find out.

But is has also concentrated power over what exactly we eat in relatively few hands.  We have to hope that the ready-made food that we buy is what they say it is and is produced to high standards and as per-the laws governing food production and storage.  We have to trust that producers are not forced to cut corners when it comes to standards in order to keep their prices low for the supermarkets.  And many-a-high-street has been damaged by the arrival of an out of town store or local mini-supermarket.

So I wonder if the time isn’t right to have a fresh look at the supermarkets, food production and food industry regulation?  We all need to eat after all.  As we have found out with banks – complacency over regulation can be a very dangerous thing.  Horsegate has clearly shown it is those on the lowest incomes that are most reliant on the enforcement of food standards and safety regulations.  Those with enough money can be appalled about Shergar burgers masquerading as cheap beef burgers but they can to a large extent buy peace of mind.  But many will have no choice but to trust the supermarket and the regulators.

Seems very much one nation Labour territory to me.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party


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5 Responses to “The Shergar burgers story tells us its time to look again at supermarket regulation”

  1. Nick says:

    Cow walks into a bar.

    Why the long face, asks the barman?

    Bloody illegal ingredients, coming over here, stealing our jobs.

  2. A Tescos in Every Town says:

    Thanks to the expansion of the big supermarkets and global trade people have more access to affordable and high quality food that ever, and the regulators actually did their job in picking up on this abuse.

    If you want to think of concentrated power think of the tyranny of the small shops in years gone by.

    There are a multitude of vested interests – led by the landowners/farmers – wh tell us the power of the supermarkets is a bad thing. But in the end their solution boils down to more expensive food. Labour should resist that – even if it comes from the middle class “green” groups beloved by the knit-you-own-muesli brigade. Instead we should be pressing harder for the removal of market distortions – such as the CAP – that enforce artificial scarcity and keep prices high by subsidising things like sugar beet and excluding trade from the developing world.

    Of course we should be ever vigilant on the possibility of any one supermarket becoming a monopoly, but no one can think we are near that now. As for farmers whining about supermarkets using market power to drive their profits down – I don’t recall seeing any of them on the picket lines during the miners’ strike.

  3. e says:

    I wouldn’t be so sure that only cheap foods are adulterated. This issue should bring on a debate about how standards are enforced across a single market. (As with the PIP scandal for example) But we get “ah, the poor old poor”…… The Tories meanwhile continue their mission to convince us EU regulations are just an irritant holding us all back.

  4. e says is right. It’s not only cheap food that is not what you expect. The law allows quite a bit to be stuff other than the meat advertised. In this case this law hadn’t been broken. A famous sausage company who produce pink sausages are well known for using the allowance to the max including lots of non-meat stuff like connective tissue, fat, organs, etc.

    The meat came from the EU so it followed EU standards – which we do too here. No law has been broken.

    The ONLY thing wrong with the situation is that the inclusion of horse meat has been publicised and it’s a very strong taboo here in the UK. Elsewhere in the EU horse meat is a delicacy and not used in any cheap cuts. So it’s inclusion here in the UK in cheap meat was not for cost cutting reasons.

    I suspect that this case has been raised as an attempt to get more DNA testing of meat samples. Currently it’s not carried out for every single sample, if at all as shown by the calls for DNA testing to be carried out from now on.

    So it’s a blatant attempt for some organisation to get more money for carrying out DNA testing for food inspectors.

  5. swatantra says:

    There is nothing like buying your own meat fish and poultry and cooking your own meals, none of this convenience pulp. Stews Casseroles Curries Roasts Pastas, You can do it, with forward planning. Thats what I do.

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