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Supermarkets have ‘underwear around ankles’ on horse meat

By Anne Bruce , 20-Feb-2013
Last updated the 20-Feb-2013 at 13:46 GMT

The horsemeat scandal has caught big retailers “with the their underwear down” and it was still too early to predict the full implications of the crisis, a leading food policy commentator has told FoodManufacture.co.uk.

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London, said: “The public has been amazingly literate and urbane about the horsemeat scandal. The big retailers have been found with their underwear around their ankles, their systems of control have not been working, while state controls are wound down. We don’t yet know how this will play out.”

But Lang also highlighted early research from Kantar that revealed one-third of shoppers would be less likely to buy processed meat after the scandal.

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett told Foodmanufacture.co.uk that the impact of the horsemeat scandal on buying habits would depend on how long the scandal lasted.

Many consumers still did not realise that they were buying processed meat in sausages and similar products, he suggested.

Food scandals

“It is true that previous food scandals have helped organic sales, but no-one has attempted to quantify how much with so much background change going on,” he said.

“I was surprised by the horsemeat scandal, but a scandal was inevitable. The multiple retailers’ relentless drive for cheap food comes at a price. I am just hoping that everyone is as horrified as me at the pictures that keep appearing on TV of mince being mixed.”

Melchett said the solution was a shorter supply chain. “Knowing what farm your food came from is worth a thousand labels.”

The need for shorter supply chains was backed by Scotland’s cabinet secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead. Speaking after a meeting between food manufacturers, retailers and other stakeholders, Lochhead said: “There is an absolute need for supply chains to be shorter and easier to track and for high-quality produce to be used wherever possible.”

For the National Farmers Union, the horsemeat scandal is seen as an opportunity to promote British products.

A spokesman said: “British farmers are not implicated in the horse meat scandal, it is a supply chain issue not a farm issue. With Farm Assured produce the labelling is quite clear, as are welfare standards and you have traceability back to the farm.”

Demand for quality assured beef

A spokeswoman for the beef and sheep industry body EBLEX said anecdotal evidence suggested that demand for quality assured beef was holding up in the light of the horsemeat scandal. But there was a lag in finding hard data, she added.

The National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMFT) told FoodManufacture.co.uk that members’ sales had been boosted.

Richard Stevenson, technical manager of the NFMFT said: “Most members are reporting an increase of 10–15% including new customers that they have never seen before. If anything, it is increasing day by day.”

Sales of mince and burgers were particularly strong, he said. “One member reported that sales of his pies and pasties are up 300% with queues all day; most unusual for mid-week.”

But the British Retail Consortium, however, suggested that there was no evidence yet that consumers’ shopping habits had changed in the light of the scandal.

A spokesman said: “Supermarkets are saying that there has not been a significant change in buying patterns, either in terms of the quantities bought or in terms of shifts between categories of meat products.”

A spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society said that it was fielding an increased volume of calls because of the horsemeat scandal, with increased activity seen on its social media sites such as Twitter.  She said: “We have not collated the data, but we are seeing more people starting to query where their food comes from.”

Meanwhile, Compassion in World Farming said that there was rising concern about the welfare of the horses involved pre-slaughter on its Twitter site. A spokesman said: “Clearly, there are criminals involved at this stage.”