Monday, January 21, 2013

The horsemeat in burgers scandal. Are we consumers partly to blame?

We consumers. We love cheap food

Oh how we love cheap food, but then gasp in amazement that it might contain something unpleasant. This week’s shock discovery of horse DNA in Irish burgers grabbed headlines around the world. But are we, the consumers also to blame for this debacle?

Our lust for a bargain has been mirrored in the advancing market share captured by Lidl and Aldi in Ireland – we’ve fallen in love with the low-cost German model. At a recent dinner party several well heeled guests boasted how they’ve halved their grocery bill by going to discounters. I replied that Aldi is a great buyer of Irish food – purchasing everything from Aberdeen Angus beef, sparkling water, artisan cheese and yoghurts for its own brand range. Food producers whisper to me that Aldi pay on time with “no messing around”. They’re only too glad to board the German steamroller.

Meat processing for burgers
Yet our desire for cheap food and the lengths the food chain will go to supply it are central to how horse DNA got into our burgers. Supermarkets want profits up, share price up and they do this by driving prices down. Their goal is to pay suppliers as little as possible including those who process beef. But like any product, food has a bottom line from where it can be produced or not. Below that line cost-cutting can put consumers at risk. For this very reason I’ve campaigned at Oireachtas Committee level for a supermarket ombudsman to ensure farmers and food producers can produce our food cleanly and safely.

Irish beef at its best; grass fed and highly traceable
Last year Monaghan chicken farmer Alo Mohan told me they made 56 cent on every chicken. These same chickens are then retailed as low as 2.99 by the supermarket. How can a living breathing animal which has been nurtured, fed and cared for from birth to cost less than a cup of coffee?. And if the farmer is getting 56 cent out of a 2.99 – who is taking the largest cut? The supermarket.
Chicken farmer Alo Mohan

But who’s driving this? Us the consumers.
It may come as a surprise that food prices in Ireland are in fact artificially low and far lower relative to the UK. Since 2005 food prices in the UK have increased by as much as 35%. By comparison, Irish prices are just 3 to 4 per cent above their level of seven years ago despite the euro area as a whole increasing by 15%. In this same period, the price of oil and grain has made the cost of producing food explode. In Ireland, recession and weak consumer demand has kept the supermarkets in razor sharp competition, trying to keep the price of food low despite production costs rising.

As our incomes shrink and bills dropping onto the hall floor are ignored for days no one wants to go out and pay a whopping amount on groceries. But in our desire for value we can end up with products like the supermarket spaghetti bolognese I examined containing just 16% meat. What on earth is in the rest? Most likely what are called food “extenders” and “fillers”.
Extenders and fillers are used to add volume and taste to sausages, burgers, ready meals and any amount of things in our trolleys. They arose from the need to produce lower cost food and can reduce costs by 10-30%. This week our Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney described the ingredient that carried horse DNA into the Irish burgers as powdered beef-protein additive – a filler used to bulk up cheaply produced burgers.

"Pink slime" was commonly used in US fast food chains
Also common is mechanically separated material from animal carcasses known as mechanically deboned meats (MDM) where meat on bones is ground and processed into a product that then goes into other foods. You might remember the unpleasant “pink slime” story which broke in America recently. This MDM (resembling pink ice cream) was found in many fast food chain burgers. But once it was exposed that ammonia treated to “clean” the slime, fast food chains boycotted it in a desperate bid to calm consumers.

Most of this intense manufacturing takes place in Europe and looks to like the source of our imported horse DNA problem. It’s frustrating that Ireland has the best food ingredients in the world with demanding standards on food safety and traceability. Yet somewhere an ingredient manufacturer has cut costs, or deliberately defrauded other manufacturers and consumers. You won’t find many other countries doing the type of DNA tests the FSAI carried out on meats because frankly they would be too scared about what it might reveal.

What needs to happen quickly is identifying and punishing the supplier who sold this tainted ingredient into Irish burgers. In 1999 the Belgian dioxin crisis cost Belgium 625 million euro and the prime minister his job. Yet the Belgian father and son who knowingly sold machinery oil into animal feed causing widespread PCB poisoning received ridiculous suspended sentences of two years. The penalty for messing up the food chain should be an enormous headline-grabbing event to match the damage done by the event itself. Horse DNA in Irish beef burgers is not acceptable. Who is going to take up the tab for the damage done to our own food sector and jobs?
So what can we do to eat safely and not pay out a fortune? The answer is keep your food chain short and keep things simple. And let’s be honest, this takes work. But putting a small bit of thought into what I buy makes me feel safer about what I feed my children in particular. I buy my meat and vegetables from local shops in the village. I buy store cupboard foods in one big shop about every three weeks in either Superquinn or Aldi picking brands and suppliers I know and trust. Kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, butter beans, chick peas, chilli flakes and herbs are all imported products, my trick here is to buy what has the least added ingredients and cooks well.

If you only want to shop in the supermarket always buy Bord Bia approved beef, pork, chicken and sliced meats for kids lunches. I’ve been on these farms, seen the processing and this is the highest level of auditing in food you’re going to find. I never eat ready meals but cook my own – cottage pies, ratatouilles, warming chillis and soups, freezing half for another day.

Preaching only to buy local and artisan goes over most consumers heads and budget. But buying less complicated foods and ingredients is one way to bypass the extremes of food manufacturing. Remember horsemeat is also present in many snack foods and crisps sold on European supermarket shelves. The more processed something this, the more surprising the ingredients are on the label. Keep things simple is the key, buy Irish and above all enjoy your food. Our food sector employs 200,000 Irish people, let’s hope it can weather this storm. 


  1. Well said Suzanne (as always). Trying to get people to understand that it is more important to know what they are eating and where it is coming from can be like trying to sell ice to eskimos. We shop as locally as possible and do the same, buy pantry items in bulk on a monthly basis. The horse meat story last week, sadly, did not shock us at all.

  2. The revelations go on and on. We're not Bord Bia Quality Approved to date, because we are so tiny but we're more than happy to explain why we have two labels depending on the raw meat source (our own free range pork or pork we buy locally from a Bord Bia Quality Mark factory) and the other ingredients we put in our processed products. Did a tasting in SV Clonakilty last Saturday & happily spent most of my time explaining to customers that I really do stand in production every week physically making sausages or slicing rashers, and that between us Willie & I do most of our own deliveries; and that we are responsible for our Food Safety system on a day to day basis. There are those who have woken up to the cost of cheap food; unfortunately there are still many who can't get beyond the €.

    1. There are many who can't afford to heat their homes, pay the esb, and struggle to put any food on the table. And most of those people are working.

  3. thanks for your comments, indeed I have just posted on the situation of those at the bottom of the chain re lowest grocery budget will suffer the most as retailers source ever cheaper food. What we need is regulation of the supermarkets. We cannot have a situation any longer where they suck huge profits from the system, pay primary producers so little and buy from manufacturers who seem beyond regulation. An ombudsman is needed. And seriously, if I hear "legislation is coming on this" I'm going to batter someone over the head. Four years on we're still waiting...

  4. It's great to read your clear explanation some of the processes and principles at play in the production of cheap food. Horsegate is a complex mix of economic, ethical, legal and emotional issues, and you've deepened my understanding of several of those. Thank you!

    Your headline question is "Are consumers partly to blame?". Here's my contribution.

    As we know, any democracy that chooses capitalism can expect consumers to seek cheap prices and businesses to maximise profit by keeping costs low. Experience has told us that we cannot assume that corporations will spend money on behaving ethically. That's why we made the rule that you can't sell horse meat and call it beef. And the other rule that you're responsible for knowing what's in the food you sell, and describing it honestly.

    As far as I can see, that's all there is to it. Yes, capitalism itself tends to make cheap food riskier, but that tendency doesn't determine blame when retailers break the law. The purveyors of horseburger were either knowingly deceiving consumers, or taking a calculated risk on their "blind spot". As chance would have it, they chose the more profitable option. Lucky or what? Small fine, short dip in consumer confidence, then on the home straight to business as usual, no regrets. It pays well to punt on the horses when you know the fix is in. And the fix here is the system we voted for. That does actually seem to be what most of us want.

    So, who is to blame? Retailers knew the rules but figured they'd make more money by breaking them. There lies the blame. When consumers get too greedy and break the rules, we call it shoplifting, and we don't wonder about blaming the retailers for it.

    The entire issue seems to be a predictable consequence of our placing the profit motive on too high a pedestal. There are a lot more shoplifters in jail than retailers. You can bank on it.

    Those are my thoughts, anyways - and these are my thanks again for your excellent article, and for giving me a better understanding of food's breakneck gallop from stable to table.