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Horsegate – We’re busy doing nothing

waxing moon

“We’re busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do...” (17/2/13)

Imagine that chorus being sung by an admixture of government ministers, supermarket supremos, catering conglomerates and meat-packers and you have the essence of the official response to the the horsegate scandal.

Today it emerges that the Government has known for nearly two years that horsemeat, possibly contaminated with the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, or bute, was in the food system.

Former agriculture minister Jim Paice is now busily covering his ass. Meanwhile, showing that he misunderstands the story and its implications and the necessary response, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, has been singing the same nonsense refrain for a couple of weeks now: Labelling and testing, testing and labelling, tra la la la la...

Why didn’t the Conservatives do anything? We may never know; when it comes to food politics there are agendas wrapped in plots hidden inside naked ambition.

Go ahead and say that I've watched to many episodes of Yes, Prime Minister or The Thick of It, or read too much Private Eye, but a review of the Conservative Party 2010 Manifesto may shed some light as to why government agencies sat on this information for so long.

As I wrote in 2010 the thrust of the Tory manifesto’s commitment to foods was to ‘Buy British’ – a fantastic example of how to take a reasonable idea and turn it into meaningless campaign slogan.

Naturally it was a little sketchy on the details of what buying British actually meant except where meat was concerned. The Tories wanted all consumers to be assured that “meat labelled as ‘British’ is born and bred in Britain”.  

Labelling, there’s that word again. Of course, in the midst of all this brouhaha and the search for certainty, it’s easy to forget that labels can mislead. All the products currently involved in horsegate were labelled in some way. The ones in the supermarket probably came with lots of reassuring words  and pictures.
 

How many of them, I wonder, were sold as British assured? No one seems to have asked that question, though clearly British processors are involved. Or maybe nobody could hear it being asked over the noise of the NFU and the Red Tractor booster club.

The silence around this issue has allowed Red Tractor apologists to gain traction in favour of a logo that guarantees nothing more than food carrying its label is produced to a minimum legal UK/European standard.

The
Red Tractor website proudly proclaims: “Pubs, cafes, hospitals, schools and some of our Armed Forces all benefit from the assurance of Red Tractor’s high standards”. 

Erm, aren’t these the very same institutions most affected by horsegate? 

Let’s review what Red Tractor can’t guarantee:

• Animals are not intensively reared
Animals treated well, given outdoor access
Animals are not mutilated (tail docking, beak trimming etc)
Animals not fed on GM feed
Animals are not given growth promoters
Food that is locally or UK produced
Organic production
Environmentally superior production methods

The Red Tractor label added a Union Jack to its logo in 2005 to denote products that have been “produced, processed and packed in the UK”.

But a flag on the label can be used to divert attention from all kinds of unacceptable practices such as massive indoor dairy facilities where the cows rarely see the light of day, battery chicken operations, British scallops obtained by dredging the ocean floor, British livestock fed on food containing GM soya and maize and so on.

The FSA hasn’t commented on the labels that the tainted meat might or might not have been carrying, but then again the FSA can’t even say how many meat products there are on the market – that’s how badly out of control the convenience food market and the catering trade have been allowed to get in the name of free trade.

But the rhetoric appears to be working. A recent ComRes survey for the Sunday Mirror and the Independent on Sunday, found that 53% of the 1,784 people polled were favour of a ban on all meat imports "until we can be sure of their origin" (more depressing however was only 7% held supermarkets responsible for the problem – even though supermarkets are the key drivers in the cheap food culture which has led to the corner cutting and criminal activity behind horsegate).

Buying blindly British isn’t the answer - as the increasing involvement of UK firms in this debacle shows. Labelling isn’t the answer - we need to wean people off food that needs labels and cooking instructions and serving recommendations. Testing isn’t the answer – it can only tell us what’s gone wrong in the past and reveal information about what we are looking for (I mean, what else would we find in our meat if we really started looking?!). 

None of these things do anything to help get good fresh food where it is needed most, to people on low incomes – the ones most likely to be buying cheap meat-based meals. It does nothing to change a food culture where Britain is one of the highest consumers of ready meals in Europe. It does nothing to address ridiculously long food chains which are open to corruption at every step.

There’s no satisfaction in saying “we told you so”, there’s no real joy in ‘being right’, but a lot of us have been saying these things for a very long time. Sometimes it’s like howling into a hurricane. We’ve watched scandal after scandal build and then blow over as politicians become more adept at misdirection and a mollified public settles back into its convenience food habits.

Until we insist on a higher standard, for ourselves, and from our government, until we stop thinking of supermarkets as ‘friends’, until we stop depending on the free market to sort out the problems that it created in the first place, nothing will change.