Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Bargain beef isn't worth it – there's too much at steak

Cutting costs to reduce the price to customers is common business practice. It shouldn't be in the food-processing industry, says Michael Wolsey

There is an unshakable public conviction that prices move in just one direction: the only way is up.

 Try throwing an opposing view into general conversation and you will be met with amazed rebuttal, or the condescension reserved for those regarded as not the full shilling. And, sure, everybody knows a full shilling buys you nothing these days.

But 'everyone' is wrong. Prices for some things have fallen dramatically. Take socks. I bought five pairs in a supermarket last week. They cost me £3.

That's 60p-a-pair, 30p-a-sock. (Actually, they cost £2.98, but my maths aren't up to that sort of long division.)

Take ballpoint pens. In the same shop, I could have bought 10 of them for 80p, 8p-a-pen. (Even my maths are able for that one.)

Or take watches. Online I can buy one that is billed as an 'analogue quartz gents with black strap' for £2.43, a sum which the website tells me also covers 'free shipping'. A 'bracelet sports automatic' for a child sells at £1.99, with the same 'free shipping' thrown in.

It's difficult to draw direct price comparisons with 10, 20 or 30 years ago, but there was a time when even cheap watches were dear enough to justify repair by jewellers skilled in the trade; when people bought refills for ordinary ballpoint pens and darned the holes in their socks.

Today, it is cheaper to replace than repair. The 8p pen may not last long, but, at that price, who cares?

We should care, of course. The parts of that pen may have been made in one corner of the globe and assembled in another.

It has been shipped halfway around the world and stored by a wholesaler, who sells it to the supermarket chain which stores it, again before moving the pens out to individual shops.

If, after all that, the shop can sell a pen for 8p and still make a profit, then imagine what the person making the parts is paid.

I try not to imagine it. To do so involves a trail that is difficult to follow and economics that are beyond my understanding.

A penny-a-pen cannot be good money anywhere, but, if pen-making is the only industry in your village in rural Pakistan, you may not wish to risk its transfer to Haiti, where they are already assembling these ballpoints at half that price.

By buying these cheap products, am I encouraging something that falls just short of slave-labour? Or am I helping provide a weekly wage for someone who otherwise would have no income at all?

Like most of us, I simply do not have an answer to those questions. But I know for a fact that these cut-price commodities are not doing me any harm.

So, when it comes to socks and pens and cheap watches, I don't ask many questions, or lose a lot of sleep over the inadequate answers.

Dearer items might serve me better in the long run, but cheap socks have killed no one and cheap pens do not need to carry a health warning.

The same cannot be said of cheap food. I have never eaten horse (well, not that I know of). It's not something I would object to. If I saw it on a menu, I might well try it. But I'd like to know where it came from and that it's meat fit to eat, which is more likely if the animal was raised for that purpose, not chemically enhanced with a view to winning the Grand National.

The revelations about horse meat in burgers and lasagne suggest that it is almost impossible to get this information about processed foods.

The lasagne in question carried the name of Findus, a Swedish company. It employed a French company to process the ready-meals at a factory in Luxembourg.

That company got its meat from another French firm, which used an agent in Cyprus who, in turn, used another agent in Holland, who sourced the meat somewhere else, probably Romania.

All this is in keeping with modern business practice, where the bottom line dictates company locations.

I say Findus is Swedish, because that is how the company has been described and Sweden is where it was founded.

But it was bought years ago by the Swiss company Nestle and has its headquarters in Britain. It is now controlled by some banks and a private equity firm. The brand is licensed to different owners in different countries.

International companies do not recognise national boundaries, which makes it hard to contest their rates of pay or employment practices.

We may turn a blind eye to this when it involves the production of goods and happens outside our jurisdiction, but food is different.

Accountability doesn't matter much for socks, but it matters a lot for sausages. The chicken I bought last week was identified as coming from a supplier in Co Antrim. The steak I bought was traceable to a farm in Co Meath.

I've no idea about the socks, but I would eat them before I'd chance mince from a bargain-basement ready-meal.

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