From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, Gary Craig says the horsemeat should provide food for thought for everyone (including vegetarians).
Since news of the horsemeat scandal first broke a few weeks ago, there is no doubt that vegetarians in the region were smirking. The one feature which all dimensions of this scandal shared was that they involved the production, processing and consumption of meat products, whether beef, horse, pig or chicken.
However, the issues raised by recent events go way beyond meat production and in fact go to the heart of our supply chain and how we as consumers can trace the origins of the items we put in our shopping baskets.
Three major questions need answering: why is it happening, how can we be sure that what it says on the can is actually in the can, and what are the conditions under which it is actually produced?
The first one was indeed answered by the international expert Lord Christopher Haskins, himself former Chair of the Yorkshire conglomerate Northern Foods, author of several parliamentary enquiries on food production, who told the BBC that “leave aside all the other issues, this is essentially about driving costs down” – the search for ever-greater profitability, whether it be in production, processing or retailing. This is why processors are currently objecting to proper, flexible labelling systems – because it impacts on their profitability.
Much has been spoken about the notion of a supply chain and one helpful spin-off from this scandal may be that people begin to understand the complex process by which finished goods end up on the shelves of our retailers and supermarkets.
The case of Gap provides a good illustration. A few years ago they were accused of using child labour in the harvesting of cotton, the raw material for many of their products, in countries such as Uzbekistan. The company, which had long traded on its ethical image, came under enormous consumer pressure and, in response, looked at every link in its supply chain.
From the growing, harvesting and spinning of raw materials to the dyeing, sewing and finishing of cloth, right through to transportation and warehousing, Gap discovered many of its processes involved poor or even slavery-like conditions.
The end result was it brought as many of them in-house so it could better supervise them. This was not without cost (including paying better wages to workers) and in the process they lost some market share; but it has since regained that share and can legitimately badge itself as an ethical retailer.
In the same sector, however, we might continue to ask how it is that some high street shops sell clothing at what seem to be unbelievably low prices. What are the conditions under which their clothes are produced? The recent fire at a Bangladeshi clothing factory in which 30 workers died provides some of the answers – fire officials have said the factory didn’t have an up to date fire certificate and there was no emergency escape routes.
However, we can’t simply see this as someone else’s problem. When the horsemeat scandal first broke, complacent commentators in the UK argued, the problem lay with countries on the margins of Europe with poor or non-existent food regulatory regimes. The investigations at Dalepak – meat product manufacturer of Northallerton, North Yorkshire – and Boddy’s licensed slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire – have blown that particular theory out of the water.
What we are currently facing are complex supply chains in part of a globalised system covering every country in West, East and Central Europe. The scandal implicates, in one way or another, some major local manufacturers of packaged food – such as Findus, based at Humberside – major retailers, and there is no reason to believe that companies not yet specifically named are not also likely to be implicated.
How, then, can we be sure that what it says on the can is actually in the can? Clearly the answer lies in part with effective regulation and policing, particularly, where, as seems to be the case in the horsemeat scandal, when criminals exploit weaker regulation.
Whatever the Government may say about existing regulatory systems, they are only effective when adequately resourced. Organisations such as the Food Standards Agency can only do an effective job when given sufficient resources, and clearly now they do not: under the cover of the so-called Red Tape Challenge, many regulatory bodies have seen their powers become weakened, and the impact of across-the-board public expenditure cuts has reduced their staffing levels.
Local councils will take on public health responsibilities this April but will be quite unable to do an effective job. This process is demonstrated recently in the experience of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which – since the Morecambe Bay disaster when 23 cockle-pickers were drowned whilst working for a highly exploitative gangmaster – is supposed to regulate working practices in the food production sector. The GLA has recently lost one-third of its staff and is quite incapable of monitoring more than a very small fraction of companies working in this sector.
Our research team, which has been exploring the issue of forced labour in the UK has found many examples of agencies employing workers (most of them here absolutely legally) under what can only be described as slavery conditions. They are working very long hours for poor or even no pay, their documents confiscated and threatened regularly with deportation, subjected to violent physical and sexual abuse, and living in hovels. These agencies supply some of the most well-known high street retailers with fresh food which we buy every day.
Some retailers claim they have no power to control what happens in the supply chain which delivers the products to their shops, but this is patently untrue. The power of major high street supermarkets has been so concerning that the Government has recently been obliged to appoint a sort of ombudsman – the grocery adjudicator – to monitor their activities.
As Yorkshire dairy farmers know to their cost, supermarkets’ power is such that by driving down the price of milk, farms were closing recently at the rate of one per week. And this power does not have to be in the form of a cartel: if one supermarket forces its suppliers to reduce the wholesale price of milk, then others will follow suit in order to protect their market share.
The reduced cost of milk of course is rarely reflected in consumer prices but in profitability. And this power can be exercised in more covert ways.
In our investigations of forced labour, we came across the case of a food processor supplying salad greens to a well-known high street retailer/food store.
The retailer manipulated the supply process so that it became the only customer of the food processor. The retailer then demanded lower prices and when the processor objected, the retailer cancelled the contract: the factory was forced to close with the loss of several hundred jobs.
So, this is not an issue about poor supervision in faraway countries; it is much more likely to be about worker exploitation in those countries and here in the UK. Nor is it just about meat products. The issue of what we consume (as food, drink, clothing and so on) is an issue for all of us; we all have to be vigilant.
How can supermarkets possibly sell cut flowers sourced from East Africa at such low prices?; how can clothing shops sell us such cheap clothing?; who pays the costs for such low prices?
Are goods properly and clearly labelled and are we satisfied that those producing them are acting responsibly towards the consumer and their workers?
Your local Fairtrade shop may provide some answers but don’t take claims to be ethical retailers on trust: look at the labels and ask the questions.
• Gary Craig is Professor of Social Justice at the Wilberforce Institute, Hull and at the University of Durham. He is researching worker exploitation and ethical trading in the region.
Forced labour is UK problem too
A report by Anti-Slavery International two years ago estimated 5,000 people in the UK were in some kind of forced labour, which is classed as anything damaging to their mental, physical or emotional development.
Unicef estimates that one in six youngsters, aged between five and 14-years-old, in developing countries are engaged in child labour. In the least developed countries, 30 percent of all children are engaged in child labour.
An estimated 1.2m children – both boys and girls – are trafficked each year into exploitative work in agriculture, mining, factories, armed conflict or for sex.
Every year 22,000 children die in work related accidents.