Food: Perils of supermarket cost-cutting machines

Inspired by  ‘The Godfather’
Inspired by ‘The Godfather’
14 February 2013 – Financial Times (London)

The switching of horsemeat for beef is a spectacular signal that a limit has been reached, says columnist John Gapper. excerpts.

Not since Sweeney Todd has there been such uncertainty about what exactly goes into processed meat. This time, it isn’t the customers of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street but Romanian horses.

Since horsemeat is leaner than low-quality beef and contains more Omega-3 fatty acids, it could be a rare case of adulteration that makes the food healthier. Still, it does not say much for the extended supply chain from which supermarkets and restaurants obtain their processed food. If they failed to notice horses, what else has trotted in?

At the top of the market, where organic butchers promote traceability, and you practically know the name of the animal you’re eating, swapping a horse for a cow is unthinkable. But at the cheap end, squeezed by price spikes and growing demand for meat in China and emerging economies, strange things end up in the pot.

That can’t go on. The US auto industry once dealt with suppliers in a similar fashion – squeezing them so heavily that the product deteriorated and the makers went bust. Tricky though it is to forge relationships with suppliers in a world where customers demand low prices, the food industry does not have a good alternative.

In some ways, the concentration of production and distribution in the past few decades, with corner shops being replaced by supermarkets supplied by processors, has been a good deal for the average consumer. It raised the basic level of quality – the content of British sausages and meat pies in the 1970s does not bear much thinking about – and placed a cap on prices.

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