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