Farmers Weekly has a poll this week asking who is to blame for the horseburger scandal. Of the 800 or so who have responded 55% say the processors,34% the retailers and 11% the food standards agencies.
It is difficult to allocate blame conclusively. Certainly processors are culpable because selling horse meat for human consumption is illegal in Britain.
Retailers should also be searching their consciences – is their pressure to get lowest prices leading to suppliers cutting corners so much that processes are by passed and unpleasant or even unsafe things happen. Tesco’s rush to blame their suppliers and adopt a stance of innocent victim was unedifying, and the fact that many of the major supermarkets cleared their shelves of frozen burgers mean that they also were not 100% sure that their meat was unaffected by the issue.
Some blamed consumers asking –“ what did they think was in an ultra cheap burger?”.
It is the consumer position in the saga that deserves further analysis. What indeed did consumers think they were getting? The answer is that they trusted retailers to provide wholesome food regardless of price. That trust will now be severely shaken.
This is where British farming come into the picture. Who better to be the consumers champion and trusted ally when it comes to food. Who better to put forward a clear and transparent message to the effect that “Buy British and you know what you are eating”.
But we have been doing that for years some will cry. Well, no, we have not. To date the farming industry has only been playing at building Britishness.
Take the Red Tractor logo. It should stand for meat where the animal was born, raised and processed in Britain. It does not. Only the Red Tractor combined with the Union flag means British. The other logos mean that animals could come from anywhere.
Little money has been spent on educating consumers about why they should buy British and what they should look for to ensure that they do. Few have the knowledge to interpret food labels and those that do lack the time to get down to the miniscule print which details where the product was produced. Even the word produced is confusing. How many consumers realise that produced means born raised and slaughtered in the UK rather than raised elsewhere and packed over here?
An unequivocal logo would help as funds could then be put behind a clear, easily understood and instantly recognisable message.
Most of all, if a big push is made to gain consumers’ trust it must be backed by squeaky clean and stringent standards which are rigorously monitored.
Such a radical overhaul will only be achieved through strong, single minded leadership, and this is where the idealism starts to fall apart. There is no leader for British farming, no single voice to whom the public can listen, confident that they will hear truth.
The Red Tractor people seem oblivious to growing criticism about the relevance of the logo in its current form and are therefore unlikely to embrace a radical, standards raising agenda. The NFU is managing an already huge and largely defensive agenda as it aims to protect CAP subsidies, secure support for GM, and push for action to minimise TB in cattle. The levy bodies have funds to drive a consumer push but split interests across national lines (QMS in Scotland, HCC in Wales and EBLEX in England) prevent unity.
This fragmentation is in direct contrast to the retail trade which speaks with one voice through the British Retail Consortium, or, in the case of individual retailers has one figure, usually the Chief Executive who has just one objective, namely to protect his company image.
Transferral of trust to farmers could happen. A paper presented to this year’s Oxford Farming Conference suggests that the public are looking favourably at farmers just now, albeit with some reservations. The opportunity will be lost without focussed leadership.