We whip the blame back and forth

We’ve all forgotten about horsemeat. The so-called ‘scandal’ has subsided. It’s off the agenda, replaced with lots of new global disasters (think nuclear annihilation) and domestic issues (think welfare reform). It begs the question: was this really a food crisis? Or was it just a media panic?

In January, the Irish Food Standards Agency found horse DNA in our beef burgers. Since then, there has been an uproar in the media about a ‘scandal’ surrounding our food: the Guardian reports that it has prompted food hygiene fears; the Daily Mail argues that the scandal is a ‘brutal warning’ to British shoppers; and the Daily Telegraph resorts to blaming Europe. Indeed, this idea of ‘the blame’ is intriguing. Blame consists of two elements: (i) the consequence of a perceived harm or loss that could have been avoided and (ii) a perceived responsibility or agency for the harm or loss. [1] Quite obviously, shoppers feel wronged because they have been eating horsemeat when they should not have. This raises the question of who is duly responsible for the deception. The blame has been hurled at many: the FSA, government departments, food labels, supermarkets, cheap food, the poor, ‘the system’, consumer behaviour, farmers, the Europeans, and every individual that’s ever eaten meat. Let’s explore.

The leaders in our play are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), experts and political leaders. They have blamed the ‘complexity’ of the food processing system, which involved abattoirs in Romania, factories in Luxembourg, meat processors in France, and traders in the Netherlands (before arriving in the UK). For a neat summary, see the BBC’s summary here. The FSA has, so far, mainly used a presentational strategy to minimise damage – drawing a line under the scandal and opening up a UK-wide investigation. However, experts have also used an agency strategy to shift blame onto ‘the system’: the complexity of the food processing system, the nature of regulatory governance, and the failure of the FSA to properly regulate meat. [2] One former food auditor has even blamed supermarkets for their ‘massive failure’ to regulate their own products.

Enter our middle-managers: the distributors of our food, popularly known as supermarkets. Food retailers have swiftly called for tighter regulation to rebuke the comments made by the aforementioned food expert. Tesco, for instance, promises to buy more from British farmers and ensure that as many products as possible are sourced from British soil. Meanwhile, Asda warns that this scandal could mean higher prices to ensure that the regulatory system works better. Supermarkets have opted for a policy strategy to prevent themselves from being blamed for the scandal. This is, perhaps tellingly, a strange twist in our blame game: why do supermarkets feel the need to undergo a damage-limitation exercise if they have done nothing wrong and put the blame squarely on ‘the system’?

This ‘system’ is also known as the meat industry. Some newspapers (here and here) have attempted to blame the farmers and abattoirs of Eastern Europe for the crisis. The Romanians, where the horsemeat apparently came from, have denied any wrongdoing. Of course, they do sell horsemeat – it’s just that they have been sensible enough to label it as such. The Romanians are of course very happy to eat correctly labelled horsemeat. This has caused a bit of a stir – are we just being snobbish about eating horsemeat? Is it a poor man’s food? The German development minister has proclaimed that we should give our beef products ‘tainted’ with horsemeat to the poor because ‘We can’t just throw away good food’. Outrageous, of course, but some have argued that the reason we have horsemeat in our food at all is because cash-strapped local councils and poor people can’t afford ‘real’ meat, and so supermarkets are just supplying our demand for cheap food. And so the horsemeat scandal has landed squarely back in traditional British political discourse: this is all about British identity and our obsession with class.

So where are we now? Apparently, we’re turning vegetarian. But aside from that, the outcry of a couple of months ago has not caused a sustained, existential dilemma for the public. At the end of the day, this was not a health crisis, nor is horsemeat necessarily a bad choice for cooking. Perhaps this has just been regulatory failure on a transnational scale. Was this so-called ‘scandal’ just a labelling issue all along? Or is it possible to extrapolate anything more from the headlines?

The tempting prospect is to reply with: ‘neigh’. But that would be horsing around, and doesn’t really delve into the mane issue. The unbridled plethora of news articles and television reports implies that our food industry has been problematised. The horsemeat scandal has raised two questions: ‘who gets what?’ and ‘what should we expect from our food?’. It has raised these two questions precisely because it is not illegal to slaughter, serve or eat horsemeat. This is a cultural and moral issue about our meat consumption. Both questions return us to the critical issue of consumption and the way in which we are willing to shut our eyes and ears to animal welfare and the pleasures of the palate. Our willingness to consume masses of meat – regardless of what kind – has taken its toll on the environment: pesticides and fertilisers have affected local ecosystems, growth hormones have affected food chains, and ranches are destroying forests and depleting water supplies. The price we pay for our food does not reflect its costs – especially not on natural resources, climate and ecosystems. This means that cheap meat continues to stimulate demand and inculcates the belief that to eat meat three times a day is without consequences. In agricultural societies, per capita consumption of meat was rarely above 10 kilograms. By 1950, this has risen to 17 kilograms. And today, it is over 40 kilograms. [3] The public demand meat in most of its dishes, and treats ‘cheap meat’ as a right. Does this imply that the blame ultimately lies with public expectations of food? Was the horsemeat scandal ultimately caused by the public? Perhaps. As Nikolai Gogol once remarked: ‘It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry’. [4]

So, to recap: we’ve seen producers blaming supermarkets, the FSA blaming the ‘system’, economists blaming supply and demand, newspapers blaming Europe, supermarkets blaming the FSA, vegetarians blaming the meat-eaters, and – from today – me blaming you. Have we solved some great crisis here? Or just whipped some blame back and forth?

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[1] C. Hood, The Blame Game, Princeton: PUP, pp.6-7.

[2] HC 946 (2013) Contamination of Beef Products, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 (additional written evidence), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, London: HMSO. Available here.

[3] P. Dauvergne (2008) The Shadows of Consumption, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.135-67.

[4] Nikai Gogol, The Inspector General.

Tesco, you handsome devil, I have had enough of you

For some time I have been interested in consumption, and particularly the food industry. Following books such as Tescopoly and watching films such as Food, Inc., I have entrenched my view that there is something deeply wrong with our present over-consumption, and more importantly our relationship with supermarkets. This is a topic that has seen increasing prevalence in the media too, from the BBC’s Today Programme to the Guardian in recent times.

Boycotts, door-to-door campaigning, local community groups, co-operatives, spreading the word, keeping online momentum: they are almost all entirely different things, but also amount to a growing resistance against supermarkets. One example is the Tescopoly Alliance. This organisation describes itself as a campaign group that seeks to ‘challenge the negative impacts of Tesco’s behaviour along its supply chains both in the UK and internationally, on small businesses, on communities and the environment’. This online presence is impeccable, and just by scanning the website you can see the plethora of issues that trouble consumers throughout the UK. However, that is not all. Community groups and activism exists across the country. To name a few of them:

  • Campaign Against Another Supermarket in Hadleigh (CAASH) demonstrated that over 150 jobs would go if a new supermarket was built. 56 per cent of the town opposed a new supermarket.
  • Residents Against Thundering Rattling Unbearable Noise (RATRUN) exists to expose the true cost to Harlow’s residents of the Tesco HGV network.
  • People In North Berwick Against Tesco (PINBAT) co-ordinated a raft of objections to East Lothian Council to prevent a new Tesco store.

A Colchester campaign called TESCNO called for the planned city-centre Tesco to be abandoned in 2006 – successfully.

Other campaigns include Hereford Against Supermarkets Squashing our Local Economy (HASSLE), Community Has Rights In School Sites (CHRISS) and Unthank Road. [1] These are but small examples from the backlash against supermarkets. Tesco has been targeted particularly because of the damage it causes through it’s aggressive buying and selling – it has not outstripped the other retailers for no reason.

A national alliance and local activist groups can only logically culminate in a boycott. I have not bought a single item from a Tesco store since 2009. There are eight substantial reasons (in no particular order):

  1. Supermarkets are depressing. Well-being should not be overlooked any longer, and nor should food be a suicidal mission. Local, independent shops have managed to provide a sense of trust with their customers, and developed vibrant networks. The same cannot be said of supermarkets. According to a survey done by The Grocer, 56 per cent of Tesco customers were ‘bored’ by the shop, 53 per cent were ‘stressed’, 52 per cent ‘frustrated’ and 51 per cent ‘overwhelmed’. Over half of Tesco shoppers were unhappy in one of four unpleasant ways. [2]
  2. Loss of diversity. Chain stores, and particularly supermarkets, are killing of independent high streets. Recently, the BBC Today Programme has investigated the vibrancy of local markets, and how supermarkets are the largest contributor to their slow extinction. [3] This must change – we ought to encourage local businesses of all types. I want an end to clone towns.
  3. A chilling monopoly. Tesco and Asda/Wal-Mart combined control 48 per cent of the British grocery market. The Competition Commission has called this a ‘complex monopoly situation’. [4] This is unacceptable. Do I need to mention the fact that Tesco also provides a service from cradle-to-grave, at the expense of local retailers?
  4. Identity theft. In my previous article in which I have reviewed Andrew Simms’ Tescopoly, there is a section on privacy. In effect, Tesco is creating a commercial panopticon, accumulating more data than the East German Stasi.
  5. Supermarkets do not support the local economy. Profits made from a store go to head office, and do not trickle back into the community. A supermarket may create local jobs, but only at a cost of closing down independent businesses (which will also off-set any new jobs created). For example, CAASH (see above) calculated 150 jobs would be lost by a new store.
  6. The high cost to our low prices. We may be able to pick up a bunch of bananas for £1.19, but the the profits do not end up at the producer: just over 12 pence would go to the producing country. [5] Tesco and others abuse food suppliers on a global scale, and our relationship to cheap food must change. We are deferring the costs through time (the future) and space (to the developing world).
  7. Over-consumption. Supermarkets encourage you to spend more money than you necessarily need. Of course they do, they want to profit. The problem is that this causes a tendency for over-consumption, including obesity. However, there is also an environmental impact. If the world consumed as much as Britain does today, then we would need 3.1 times as many Earths. [6]
  8. The environmental impact. We are losing 13 million hectares of natural forest each year due to consumption; and Canadian stocks of cod have been depleted by 99 per cent over the last four decades. [7]  If we bought more local and organic food and shopped by bus, bike and on foot, we could save over £4 billion worth of environmental damages to the British economy. [8]

This may not be an exhaustive list. If anything, it is very short and obviously people can try to take issue with some (all) of them. But I have had enough of Tesco, of clone towns, and of supermarkets. Evidently I can’t live without them – supermarkets have made that impossible – on a realistic level. However, where I can, I will shop local.

[1] Andrew Simms, Tescopoly, pp.258-62.

[2] Ibid., p.20.

[3] BBC Today Programme, 29 August 2011: ‘Bristol road’s ‘bright retail future’’ and ‘Britain’s favourite High Street?’.

[4] See the report by the Competition Commission here.

[5] Simms, Tescopoly, p.218.

[6] Ibid., p.233.

[7] Peter Dauvergne, The Shadows of Consumption, p.19.

[8] Jules Petty and Tim Land, ‘Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket’, Food Policy 30:1 (2005).

Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!