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Horses for main courses

zgst-horsemeat

The last couple of weeks have been far from slow for news.

The Pope’s resigned, Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder after shooting his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day and then a meteor crashed into rural Russia. However, one story threatens to keep them all off the front page – ‘The Great Horsemeat Scandal of 2013’.

The Guardian provides a chronology of events so far, but in short, horsemeat has been found in a number of dishes that claimed to contain only beef.

Reaction has been suitably mixed, from horror to apathy. Some see the deceit as part of a larger criminal activity that conned consumers, failed to adhere to religious doctrines and risked public health and so must be punished, while others take the view that the meals tasted nice, and therefore think, ‘So what?’.

Either way, our trust in those who put their names to the compromised products has been eroded. So far, all the major retailers have withdrawn products, and Findus are the biggest brand name to be affected after their lasagne was found to contain 100% horsemeat.

Our historical relationship with meat is quite complex. In the past, how you saw it depended on your social status. If you were a peasant, you saw the animals when they were alive. So you called them, cows, sheep, pigs and deer. If you were from a higher social status, you saw the animals on a plate. So you knew them as beef, mutton, pork and venison. Note that the latter come from the French, a land of unrepentant horse eaters. But in English, the meat of the horse is simply ‘horsemeat’. We don’t have a fancy name for it, because it’s never really been on the menu.

But for all the gnashing of teeth, is this scandal a major surprise?

Everyday Value

Even before the recession hit, retailers were doing their utmost to be seen to be providing value to shoppers. Often that was achieved by bringing prices down. This is generally accomplished at the expense of the suppliers, who in turn look to make savings from the companies that provide them with goods and services.  Marketing agencies know only too well that negotiations with procurement departments are rarely painless. The same is almost certainly also true for meat suppliers.

When cost cutting becomes endemic and pressure gets pushed down the line, people look for new ways to deliver. It can be the spark for innovation – necessity being the mother of invention and all that – but it can also lead to corners being cut and standards being lowered. In this instance, the consequences are apparent.  Real damage has been done to the brands caught up in the scandal and they will have to invest to build back their credibility.

For shoppers, it has provided a wake-up call and brought the whole meat processing business into the spotlight. Far from being happy and healthy beasts, we now know that meat is sent from country to country before it finally ends up on our shelves.

Effect on Shoppers

For some, these revelations will change behaviour.  A survey by Consumer Intelligence found that around one in five shoppers will cut back on the amount of meat they’ll buy, while around three in five are more likely to buy meat from independent shops. Inevitably though, the indignation will wear off and in the medium term, the convenience of supermarkets will win back many of those who ever managed to find a local butcher.

The irony for those who do stop buying processed meat is that, just as someone who is burgled tends to react by improving their security arrangements, new regulations will soon be implemented to improve standards in the meat supply chain. These ought to mean that the standard of meat we buy will soon be higher than ever.

Beyond processed meat, there may be benefits to consumers as food brands in other categories take a closer look at their own processes to ensure they don’t end up making the wrong type of headlines in future.

Indeed, for all the unpleasantness, perhaps we should be grateful that while we have been tricked and there has been serious criminal activity, it was ‘only’ horsemeat that entered the food chain. Had it been something more emotive like dog meat or far less pleasant like rat meat, the damage to the brands and retailers would have been much harder to overcome. In the meantime, the whole episode provides a clear lesson to brands, retailers and shoppers alike.

Cheap often comes at a high price.

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