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Profits trump public health

Brand trust is disappearing fast as ‘We no longer enjoy high levels of confidence in fellow citizens, much less social institutions, and are

increasingly skeptical of those holding positions of authority.’ Photo:trusttour.org

“Adulteration of meat destined for the food-processing market in Britain and in other European states is fast assuming a scale little short of the scandal that surrounded the banking industry.

In each case, government deliberately weakened the regulatory regime, trusting private companies to monitor themselves and accepting that "light-touch" regulation would assist profitability and pose minimum risk to the public.

Similarly, when the banking and "horseburger" scandals broke, there was little immediate realisation of how extensive was the wrongdoing involved.

As long as banks were racking up record profits every year, courtesy of rampant speculation and the buying and selling of worthless subprime mortgage bundles, governments were happy to stand back in amazement, glorifying the bold genius of those amassing profits, dividends and bonuses.

Food processing has not attracted similar excesses, but it has developed exponentially in recent decades, especially in supermarkets.

So-called ready meals have come a long way from the TV dinners portrayed as convenience meals when the concept was imported from north America to coincide with the introduction of microwave ovens.

They were not cheap then but have become increasingly so, partly in response to competition between supermarkets for a growing market, especially among low-paid and busy households, and partly as a result of ever-wider sourcing of cheaper ingredients.

Food campaigners and celebrity TV chefs regularly advocate locally sourced and verifiable meat, fish, seafood, vegetables and dairy products, which is a principle worthy of support.

However, establishment of a reduced number of large, modern, hygienic, centralised slaughterhouses makes more sense to European Union bureaucrats and to supermarket bosses for whom centralisation equals economies of scale, but it also means long, uncomfortable and stressful journeys to slaughter for livestock.

The supermarkets justify these practices on the basis that this enables them to hold down prices, even though most producers complain about being paid only a tiny fraction of the prices charged to the consumer.

As bad as practices are for these producers and consumers, the situation is worse still at the cheaper or "bargain" end of the market.

Where corporate profits are concerned, public health, public interest and public accountability usually come a poor second.

Such is the constant pressure to increase profitability that supermarkets and their agents are constantly on the lookout for cheaper "meat," which may not always be immediately recognisable as such.

Where there are lucrative contracts to be won there will be unscrupulous dealers prepared to pass off unpalatable parts of an animal as meat or, as we have seen in recent days, one species as another.

Eating horsemeat is not viewed as untoward in France or other European countries, but it is sold for about a fifth of the price paid for beef.

So the major preoccupation at present is not health, although the presence of the painkiller phenylbutazone in some samples of horsemeat indicates grounds for concern.

It is self-evident that adulteration of meat forms part of a widespread criminal operation across the EU and possibly further afield.

More stringent regulation in all countries involved in provision or consumption of processed food could have prevented this scandal, but neoliberal orthodoxy has stood in the way of this necessity.

The ever-growing number of products removed from supermarket shelves indicates that governments need to show greater urgency in investigating and laying bare these crimes and prosecuting those responsible.”

Originally published at:

Comment, Morning Star, Friday 15 February 3013