As thousands of Tesco shoppers feel the urge to gallop off to their local store to replenish their nosebags and the media hounds and Tescopolites salivate at the prospect of another stick with which to beat the big bad bully boys from Cheshunt, the FSA unleash their criminologists onto the DNA of a beefburger, in pursuit of the answer to questions that may well find their way into a pub quiz near you – was this a case of mistaken identity (after all, a horse carcass probably looks much like a cattle carcass to an Irish butcher, post evisceration, on a late Friday shift)? Was it the result of a sinister scam to scupper the supermarkets and pave the way for farmers markets and good old-fashioned butchers’ fayre? or was it the result of a supply chain so stressed, running ever faster just to stand still, that it fell victim to one short-cut too many in the pursuit of survival?
As I scanned the media coverage of this latest example of the fragile nature of our food supply chains, I spotted what I believe to be the likely source of the problem: “Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak both said they had never bought or traded in horse product and that they had launched an investigation into two continental European third-party suppliers” – sounds like the proverbial passing of the buck but in the UK due diligence reigns, so whilst our continental horse traders may well have been testing the market for retired hunting nags, it is the suppliers and, ultimately, the buyer who must carry the can, or at least wake up to the reality of commoditisation – offering more for less and turning a blind eye to the unintended consequences thereof.
The margins on Tesco value burgers are as tight as the specifications on the raw material from which they are derived, but as retailers jockey for position so they place increasingly unsustainable demands on their suppliers, to raise standards and cut costs – all with the best intentions (remember – every little helps). Desperate to maintain the business (if only to make a contribution to overheads) suppliers make blind promises they have no hope of keeping without cutting corners – entering the commodity market, finding another supplier more desperate than they are and willing to do more for less in an effort to utilise idle capacity and stave off the inevitable. Necessity is the mother of invention and desperate times call for desperate measures… no sooner are we under starter’s orders than the desperate supplier from ‘who knows where’ rationalises the decision to bend the rules and deliver a ‘blended’ solution that is not what the customer asked for but exactly what they deserve and more likely to pass unnoticed as the food police cut their own corners to make regulatory ends meet.