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Horseburgers: lessons learned?

March 19, 2013

I was on my way past my friendly, welcoming local Tesco the other day, its wide doorless entrance inviting me in from the cold Scottish March evening (and letting vast amounts of heat out, obviously). Set a couple of metres back, so that you couldn’t miss it as you walked in, or even past, a huge glossy display proclaimed “What we’ve Learned from Burgers,” in big red lettering on a white background, blatant as blood on bandages.

I don’t really like festering sores, but I walked in, grabbed a leaflet, and walked out, accompanied by a comforting blanket of warm air from the space heaters and refrigeration units which, I’m assured, no longer contain any horses.

So, Tesco are changing, in the face of a few unexpected items in the bagging area. Now, personally, I don’t really see the moral difference between eating horses and eating cows, although raising cows might be slightly more unsustainable, and would rather eat beans, but that’s almost beside the point here. Still, Tesco and I do agree on one thing.

“It’s about the whole food industry.”

Yeah.

For those of you who haven’t seen this leaflet, it’s printed in Tesco’s favourite colours, coincidentally the same ones as you find on the Union Jack. It’s laid out like a poem but, if that was their intention, it exhibits none of the talent of William McGonagall.

So, Tesco are changing. It reads like a grovelling abusive partner with a bunch of flowers (and a poem!), promising to be better in future.

Look, Tesco is a corporation. Corporations exist for one reason and one reason only: funnel cash from your pocket into the offshore bank accounts of shareholders. The rest is incidental. If you’re reading my blogs, you probably know this. Now, I’m going to tread carefully here, because Tesco are known for “setting the record” straight through means of libel and malicious falsehood writs, and there has never been legal aid for libel. (The Guardian had to print a front-page retraction on this story, after the malicious falsehood case was thrown out. The company used other companies in the Cayman Islands for perfectly legitimate stamp duty savings purposes. I therefore couldn’t possibly call it tax avoidance.)

But back to the note and flowers on the kitchen table.

It seems to be about meat. A good provider can always put meat on the table. Cows and chickens. Not horses. It doesn’t even mention horses.

The poem comes in a single stanza of 26 lines in a style I don’t recognise. Some of it rhymes:

“And it has made us realise, we really do need to make it better.
We’ve been working on it, but we need to
keep going, go further, move quicker.
We know that our supply chain is too complicated.
So we’re making it simpler.
We know that the more we work with British farmers the better.”

McGonagall would be proud (of his work, not that of Tesco’s PR department).

So far it has about as much substance as one of those “loaves” of “bread” they expect you to make sandwiches out of. You know, a small quantity of overmilled wheat treated with enzymes and flour “improvers” in order to hold as much air and water as possible, because apparently customers have been conditioned to like bread that is soft and fluffy, in keeping with the image of an increasingly international megacorporation.

There are a few specifics.

One is that they’ve already made sure their beef is from the UK and Ireland. Okay. The trouble is, with “food” being shipped around the world because it’s cheaper to process it in a different place to the one it was grown, is what went out as cow going to come back as cow? In any case, that’s still no guarantee that slaughterhouses in the UK are entirely reliable.

During the last fiasco, of course, Romanians got the blame. I leave the fairness of that to the courts. Let’s just say, since nobody has been convicted, I can’t be absolutely sure that some of them aren’t cutting corners, but I’m not too confident that horse won’t again be sold as beef. I smell racism since, as we’ve already noted, this is systemic.

Now, therein lies part of the problem. Most of us demand cheap food. Now, the usual argument is that cheap food means the supermarkets try to force down the prices charged by suppliers, and Tesco has a lot of suppliers. I’ve been told that much of the reason for the rise of the supermarkets is that people like me “chose” to go to the supermarkets rather than paying a bit more for food at local suppliers.

Now, I do actually know greengrocers who can seriously undercut Tesco on a small range of fruits and vegetables. For instance, yesterday I found a dozen blood oranges, sweet and juicy (rather than tasteless or under-ripe), for 49p. I found half a dozen peppers from 99p, far less than what I’d find in the supermarket. I’ve got no idea where they came from, but Italy and Spain respectively are probably safe bets. That range changes and, over time, it’s possible to get a reasonably balanced diet, but I digress. The point remains that the economies of scale achieved by supermarkets, and their ability to produce bulk loss leaders, backed by their ability to virtually dictate bulk prices of some perceived “essentials” such as milk, allow them to mostly undercut the local greengrocer. The artisan baker doesn’t have a hope in Hell.

So, cheap “food” and we “choose” to eat it.

Ah ha. There is some truth to this. Let’s deconstruct it a little. Wages tend to be high when there is full employment. There is a simple reason for this: an employer who pays low wages in a situation of full employment will find his (usually, since males tend to be higher on the kyriarchy pile than females) employees going elsewhere, because it’s simpler to find another job. In situations of high employment this is not the case, and the employer can offer whatever he pleases, knowing full well that most people would much rather work than languish on the dole, with its emotional beatings from the social “security” employees and increasingly dire effects on mental health.

This gives an incentive for the system to have a certain level of unemployment built in to it. There is a nice convenient theory propounded by the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism that low wages encourage employers to employ more people, which then leads to full employment, but this isn’t how we see it working, although it is a useful excuse when you want to slash the social security bill.

The only thing that gives an incentive to employ more people is the lure of greater profits. Full employment presents a problem for the capitalist, as he has to either provide improved pay and conditions for his workers or chain those workers to the shelves, which presents a problem when he wants them to buy goods and services. The individual capitalist wants to pay his workers as little as possible – or, indeed, nothing at all. The system demands that workers be paid in order that they can buy things that the capitalists produce. It’s one of the many contradictions inherent in the system.

Which is why Tesco will promise more no more horse burgers, and will insist they are paying more than the average market price for milk (1.58p a litre more, when they already charge roughly double what they pay for it), which is no more than a distraction from what is presumably their continued tendency to force supplier prices down, encouraging them to cut corners and adulterate the food supply, which is what caused the horsemeat problem in the first place.

What this also means is that the vast majority of people simply can’t afford premium organic produce from the farmer’s markets. It’s not that we choose to go to the supermarket: either you work all the hours available, holding down three part-time jobs, so you don’t have time to shop around, or you don’t have a job or are otherwise on a tiny income, so you live on the cheapest loss-leading processed rubbish that you can find.

The system is engineered to keep the majority with critically low incomes, buying food and clothing from retailers in a race to the bottom on price, supplied by industries paying their workers as little as possible, in appalling conditions, often literally locked in the factory, with inevitable consequences. This choice narrative, much of it coming from perfectly legitimate small food producers, is, at best, flawed. We may be complicit but, for many, it’s a forced complicity. For many. I would suggest that those who are in a position to pay properly for good food and other essentials should do so. This keeps money moving in the economy, instead of transferred to rich shareholders, and may bring prices more within reach of the slightly less affluent, if not the poor.

The smoke-and-mirrors operation continues. They say they want to talk about meat. They say they are going to source all their beef from the UK and Ireland (one of Ireland’s biggest exports is live and dead cow) are going to source all their fresh chickens from the UK.

I hope you spotted that. Fresh chickens. Nothing about the mountains of processed chicken peddled by the chain every year. Tesco insist that they will source chickens from the UK “where practical.” The “fresh” chickens, which they have to label and are predominantly eaten by the affluent, will be traceable. The processed chickens, which they don’t and are consumed by the poor and mixed in with stuff from many different countries, won’t be.

They tell us lesson learned.

But back to that milk. They say they want to talk about meat, and for a while they do. Then they change the subject, to cow-juice. You remember I mentioned that Tesco are going to be paying a whopping 1.58p per litre for milk above the market average (at the time of writing the latest figures were for January, but at 7 gallons of milk per cow per day that comes out at an extremely generous (not) 50p more per cow per day). Now, to be fair, their recent increase (applying to some farmers, but not others) seems to be somewhat above the rate of retail price inflation, and has to do with higher costs, mainly in cattle feed. On the other hand, Farmers for Action thought the whole thing was so misleading they took it to the Advertising Standards Authority.  The price paid might be up, but there is dispute as to whether it’s fair.

Their assurances about working with farmers look like nothing more than waffle. Does this mean working with farmers to cut corners and further drive down standards?

Okay, so the price of cattle feed is going up, at higher than the rate of inflation. This brings us back to the whole problem of the food supply chain. The cows and (some of the) chickens are being raised in the UK. Did you think these were animals happily wandering round on pasture until the day they suddenly aren’t living any more? Think again. Around one third of the world’s grain is fed to livestock. With demand exceeding supply, the price of grain is going up. The cows and chickens might be coming from farmers in the UK and Ireland. The feedstock is another matter: that is part of the supply chain that is conveniently overlooked. There is bluntly no way we can continue to eat this high on the food chain.

In fact, the whole issue of beef production is deeply problematic. Then you have the calf problem. For those of you who drink milk but won’t eat cows, where do you think most of those male calves go? What about the females who have gone past peak milk production (the natural life of a dairy cow is around 15 years; the average life is less than three). There is so little margin in milk that most “dairy” producers stay afloat through byproducts – meat. Most of us, including Tesco, simply are not prepared to examine the consequences of this aspect of food supply.

No, Tesco, I suggest that you have learned nothing. This is no more than a crap poem and a bunch of flowers. You’ve made a few minor tweaks to your supply chain. The rest of your behaviour remains abusive and unsustainable.

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