Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

We won't be racing back to supermarkets in a hurry

It's facile to blame the horsemeat scandal on the 'supply chain'. The buck stops with the retailer, says Donald C McFetridge

Until recently, I was quite happy to accept that Bute was a Scottish island and birthplace of the late chanteuse Lena Zavaroni; now, I'm not quite so sure.

In fact, every time I hear the word 'bute', I shudder; concerned that there may be traces – albeit low-risk – of that substance in some of the products I've been eating unwittingly as an inveterate consumer of prepared meals.

During the past month, there have been growing concerns about what we, as consumers, are actually being sold when we pass through the doors of our supermarkets and leading retailers.

Tests have proven conclusively that we may have been purchasing several products which were labelled as beef when, in fact, they have contained worryingly high levels of horsemeat.

Certain brand names, like Findus, and words such as 'lasagne' cause me to pause and think again before tossing another ready meal into my shopping trolley.

While government departments, committees, ministers and food safety experts try to get to the bottom of what has been labelled "international fraud", consumers remain uncertain and concerned about what they are purchasing and may have been eating.

The term 'supply chain' is being blamed for allowing this to happen and the general public has been made more acutely aware of how extenuated and convoluted that supply chain actually is. The truth of the matter is that the supply chain is constantly changing and expanding as retailers seek to source the best deal from suppliers and, at the same time, squeeze them tighter and tighter for more profitable margins.

All, they claim, in order to be able to provide consumers with a 'quality' product at an affordable price in a climate where food prices are continuing to spiral out of control.

Retailers, I believe, have a duty of responsibility to their customers – and they also have a lot to answer for. Consumers do not purchase these products directly from abattoirs, or from suppliers; they purchase them from retailers.

Retailers, therefore, are the last port of call for unsuspecting consumers, who have every reason to be concerned about the labelling and composition of certain product-types and categories.

Before this scandal hit the headlines, consumers were more than happy to place their trust in brand names and socially and ethically responsible retailers. Now that has all changed and changed irrevocably.

Even when we get to the bottom of how the food chain has become contaminated and have been reassured that, hopefully, more rigorous and frequent reporting procedures have been established, there will still be doubt in the minds of many consumers in respect of food provenance and safety.

In times of economic austerity, food provenance is probably among the least important variables in respect of consumer choice and purchasing behaviour.

However, as a result of this recent debacle, that is all about to change. It will take a long time before consumer confidence is fully restored and certain brand names, food types and product ranges are accepted in their hearts and minds.

Even I, as one who has eaten a sheep's eye (a delicacy in Saudi Arabia) balked when a friend suggested recently that we visit a burger joint post-cinema. What would normally have been a treat had become an anathema.

One positive outcome, however, has been the return of consumers to their local butchers, where they are assured that they're purchasing quality products, receiving good service and can be certain that they are eating what it says on the label.

In the meantime, as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson seeks to get to the bottom of this scandal, he may have cause to reflect upon Richard III's oft-repeated line, "My horse. My horse. My kingdom for a horse."

Those who are to blame may very well be forced to re-consider Catesby's declamation: "His horse is slain and all on foot he fights."

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