Don’t worry, it’s only ‘food fraud’…..

Fresh and cheap please

It’s a couple of months on, so what – if anything – has changed since “horsegate” kicked off?

Consumers have changed their buying habits a bit – maybe only temporarily, maybe more permanently. They are buying much less processed food (frozen down by 13%, fresh ready meals down by 5%), more veggie stuff (Quorn brand sales have doubled), and unsurprisingly frozen burgers have fallen off the menu whilst fresh box schemes report 41% rise in demand.

The winners are those who purvey quality and value. Aldi continues its astonishing growth up 30.8%, Waitrose by 12.5% whilst the likes of Tesco shed share.

And pretty much every day another new food fact tiptoes into the world, chipping away at our faith in the food chain just a tiny bit more. Yesterday we learned that 20% of  Northern Irish ‘cod’ wasn’t cod at all, which was yet “another example of the integrity of the food chain being shown to be substandard”.

It was a case of (phrase of the week) “fish fraud”.

Warning: may not contain elk
Warning: may not contain elk

In the past few weeks we’ve learned that 5% of EU beef is actually horse, that 25% of the fish in North America isn’t what it says it is, that it’s become impossible for supermarkets to buy non GM soya, that even Ikea Elk lasagne isn’t made from elk.

Just a labelling issue….

But the narrative on what’s going on in the food chain still centres on a story of mislabelling by a small number of pesky miscreants. Just wait till we catch the blighters.

Keeping it to a “labelling issue” limits the EU remit to enforce change through bans and suchlike – which I guess explains quite a bit. The moment it is deemed a health or safety issue there would be much more drastic action as there was with say BSE. So – to stop the kind of once in a generation damage that the BSE response caused – best to keep it to a “labelling issue”.

But – let’s face it – the labels are merely the symptoms of the deeper issue – and a raft of new “we’re Britisher than you” labels isn’t going to help fix the big trust problem.

We're so British
We’re so British

This is really all about the integrity of the system and the degree to which consumers (i.e. all of us) can trust it. And increasingly it’s about identity.

So just what exactly is on your plate?

It’s a question that’s getting very hard to answer as there seem to be looser definitions around ‘acceptable tolerance’.

  • 1% trace of horse in beef is about to be deemed “consumer acceptable”.
  • 1% trace of pork in kosher or halal is ok too.
  • Hens eating GM feed lay non GM eggs.
  • “organic” is not an absolute term – some things are more organic than others. Some standards are looser than others – and even the Soil Association permit use of non-organic feed (e.g. pork: “On an annual basis up to 10% of the ration for pigs (calculated as a percentage of dry matter intake – DMI) can comprise approved non-organic feed”)

This is confusing – and I don’t think it’s ok. From a brand perspective it’s incredibly undermining – products should be what they purport to be. If we start accepting levels of contamination where do we stop? Is it OK for your VW to be a little bit Renault? For your coffee to be a bit tea?

Brands and branding originated in the food business. Brands are (were?) all about reassuring quality and provenance. The cow was branded to indicate where it came from, how it had been reared, the quality you could expect.

Now – several centuries later – the food business looks as if it’s going to overturn those fundamental brand principles. If ‘beef’ isn’t all beef, ‘kosher’ isn’t all kosher, ‘GM free’ isn’t free of GM and ‘organic’ isn’t wholly organic – what is on our plates?

Time for some leadership

It is undeniable that food retailers, and food businesses in general, have an enormous influence over the way we behave. There are a few sectors where consumer behaviour tends to follow – rather than lead – innovations introduced into the chain. Three of the big ones are food, technology, and automotive – think about how the introduction of the ipad, the ready meal and soon electric cars sparked widespread change in how we live our everyday lives. .

Food retailing has helped to shape how we live – from how we dealt with scarcity in the 50s, how we coped with austerity in the 70s, exposed us to a vastly broader set of choices in the 80s, gave us more time via the convenience revolution of the 90s, and forever shifted our expectations of what we could and couldn’t have with the superabundance of the 90s and 2000s.

Over this span we have gone from being grateful for the presence of sugar on the shelves to expecting strawberries all year round.

lovely with a mince pie
lovely with a mince pie

We simply cannot imagine walking into a store and for the shelves not to be full of every conceivable foodstuff. And it is this expectation – that everything be available all the time in high quality at affordable prices – that has led to the massive complexity in the food chain that we’re only getting an inkling of today.

The way we eat today has been very largely shaped by what we’ve come across in the aisles of the retailers.

The way we eat tomorrow could, and should, be shaped by the next generation of leaders in the food industry.

After all, judging by the response of the regulators so far, they aren’t thinking about anything other than reassuring us that all is just fine. They aren’t thinking about what’s next.

This adds up to a huge opportunity for an ambitious food business – not the government, not the media, not the regulators, not even the health service – to lead the next chapter in our relationship with food. To help us work out what happens after superabundance. To help us forge a better relationship with food – and a better relationship with everyone involved in producing it – that allows us to do more with less, to live affordably and well, and to simplify the process of getting food from farm to fork.

It’ll require bold thinking, overturning of dogma and some revolutionary new business models. Food’s about to get very exciting.

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