After the horsemeat-in-burgers scandal, consumers are likely to foot the bill for greater transparency and traceability in international food supply chains, reports Dr Pamela Robinson
Putting your head above the parapet is never easy as an academic, but sometimes events overtake us! The recent horsemeat controversy is one of those occasions. The discovery of equine DNA in a selection of products sold by the UK’s leading supermarket retailers is more than just an issue of ‘rogue’ behaviour by a small group of unscrupulous players in international supply chains; it raises real concerns about the safety of the food on our plate.
The trust that we, as shoppers, have placed in our local and favourite supermarket has been undermined. The retail industry may have been quick to act by removing the products from sale that were potentially contaminated and by sponsoring full-page advertisements in national newspapers stating that they would route out the culprits. However, the lack of explanation as to why this incident could have happened in the first place caused a great deal of anxiety for many consumers. The usually boisterous and market savvy retailers, who constantly promote their great price promotions, buy one get one free, proved far more reticent when a guarantee of the safety of their beef burgers and frozen ready meals was concerned.
A distinct lack of information in this respect and the supermarkets’ failure to offer a plausible reason as to how such an issue could arise in a tightly monitored and well-governed supplier base helped to create a media vacuum. The need for public assurance was paramount, but apart from the UK’s Food Standard Agency (FSA) there was little comment from an authoritative source. The supermarket bosses and the industry representative body, the British Retail Consortium, were uncharacteristically coy in terms of communicating the circumstances that may have led to the crisis. Supermarket representatives, who would normally vigorously defend their role in the sourcing process of good quality and ‘value for money’ staple food products in the UK, fell silent. As a former retail buyer, a social scientist, and an active researcher in the field of ethical trade and global supply chains, I was encouraged by the University’s press office to draw on my expertise and comment. A Perspective on the subject placed on the University of Birmingham website led to a series of unexpected press and media interviews. So what were the issues that this controversy raised and what potential dangers did it signal for the future in respect of food safety.
More local sourcing and greater attention to processes of ‘due diligence’ and product testing are the commitments highlighted by the supermarket retailers embarrassed by the discovery that the weakest link in their sophisticated supply chain had been exploited. The discovery of horsemeat and the possible contamination in a number of processed foods, which were largely of the ‘cheap’ and ‘cheerful’ frozen food variety, shocked an industry that regarded itself as having some of the most stringent controls and effective food governance systems in the world. No doubt, the supermarkets will try to rebuild their position as purveyors of fine foods – high quality, healthy, convenient and good-priced products – in order to regain public trust and confidence. In the wake of this repositioning, the ‘value proposition’, that helped supermarkets to dominate in the UK market but which also exacerbated the price pressures in the chain, will need to include a greater emphasis on ‘reliability’ and ‘good governance’. Consequently, this will affect how supermarkets source in the future.
Following the announcement of the equine DNA tests on approximately 3,500 food products at the end of February 2013, which proved less damaging than was originally expected, retailers have began to highlight some of the changes they plan to make. These changes include the reintegration of some of the very supply chains supermarkets outsourced to reduce their cost-base during the last decade. Other changes are likely to come from government legislation, which the main supermarket retailers have indicated they welcome and accept as a necessary part of ensuring a similar crisis does not happen again. It is understood by many of the actors involved in the industry that stricter legalisation will result in a more comprehensive system of screening for raw materials, ingredients and finished products in international food supply chains, but with a more rigorous testing regime there is likely to be an associated cost.
What is unclear at the moment is where the additional costs will fall; producers, farmers and food processors are concerned that they will have to foot the bill, in the interest of rebuilding consumer trust and maintaining the supermarkets’ bottom-line. This raises the question of whether food is too cheap and indeed, whether we all have a part to play in acknowledging that retail prices have to increase. This will lead to greater food inflation, but if the alternative is a lack of confidence in the provenance of food, which is essentially a basic human need, then there may be little option. Thus, the burden may ultimately fall back on consumers, and perhaps this is the only way for humans to gain the assurances that the food they purchase and consume is safe and healthy, and as such, will cause them no harm.
The probability following the horsemeat controversy, therefore, is that systems of food testing are improved, transparency and traceability in international supply chains is increased, and accountability is laid at the door of the market; aka the consumer. As is true in many other aspects of life, the responsibility and choices we make as individuals – where we shop and what we eat – are likely to influence our health and well-being in the foreseeable future. Dr Pamela Robinson is a lecturer and member of the Global Value Chains (GVC) Research Group at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.
Dr Pamela Robinson is a lecturer and member of the Global Value Chains (GVC) Research Group at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.
Previously Pamela spent 14 years at Tesco’s as a retail manager, buyer and supply chain executive, before joining PwC as a retail consultant where she advised a number of major supermarket chains and consumer product manufacturers on business strategy and supply chain relationships.