We are told not to buy counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags or DVDs from down the Barras or from e-bay because they fund criminal gangs that are often involved in other unsavoury activities such as human trafficking and drug smuggling. What we aren't told is that is we keep on the straight and narrow using legitimate brands and widely respected retailers we could still unwittingly fund the same criminal gangs. As the story of the horse meat sold as beef scandal develops it is becoming clearer that that is what is happenning: Polish and Italian criminal gangs using intimidation to get the horse meat signed off as beef before exporting to traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands before reaching producers in France which then process it before finally sending it to the UK.
On reflection, it is not a surprising outcome of the way the food system works: a combination of globalisation, long supply chains and a constant pressure to reduce costs. The big four supermarkets (Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsburys) command over three quarters of the groceries market and can make or break their suppliers. If they want the price to drop, suppliers have to reduce the cost or risk going out of business, which in the horse meat case led to sourcing ingredients from further afield with less cross border accountability and traceability.
Over the coming weeks and months, as investigations continue and conclusions are drawn, new regulations may be recommended to avoid repetition but those responsible will most likely move on to a new scam.
EcoWarriorMe is of the opinion that this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is something that can be tested for and for the many people who have eaten affected products it can be a distressing time. That makes for a great story - there is a clearly defined people and it could directly affect you. The other stories that we don't hear so often are of more tangential relevance. The orangutans illegally slaughtered and their homes cleared to expand palm oil plantations for example. Not all palm oil comes from such plantations and it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern one from the other if it has been corruptly certified. Corruption and criminality can be in the supply chain of many products, whether it is illegal logging, mining, land grabs or bonded labour and we can be sure that standards of employee welfare and environmental protection are not a priority.
As a consumer it is very difficult to identify what we should avoid and what is acceptable. If retailers such as the co-operative which has a strong ethical and environmental policy can get caught out, how can we as individuals going to make the right choices?
We can avoid processed foods - it is harder to pass off whole foods as something else. Keeping it local can also help. When we source produce from a local farmers market, green grocers or butcher we have more confidence in its providence compared with food that has passed through numerous middle men to the big supermarkets.
In a bizarre twist to this story, it would appear that the glut in cheep horse (and donkey) meat has resulted from new laws to force horse drawn carts of Romania's roads to make way for cars.