Horse-riding lessons

How can you supply horsemeat responsibly?

The UK has a long history of food scares and scandals – think mad cow disease, salmonella and listeria. But the horsemeat affair is on a different scale and appears to involve a significant part of the European meat supply chain. It also goes beyond health, raising several important issues. The most important being about transparency: processed meat foods do not necessarily contain what it says on the label. And you have to wonder whether the non-processed cuts of meat are what they are sold as.

This has real implications for corporate responsibility. Last year Tesco donated £74.5m to charitable causes at the same time as its lengthy supply chain was compromised. Yet corporate responsibility should begin with core operations rather than charity – and there is little more core than a functioning supply chain. Yet after 20 years of outsourcing, companies in a number of sectors are being forced to realise that responsibility cannot be outsourced. The retailers involved in the horsemeat affair are doubtless considering legal action against their suppliers – all the way down to the abattoirs. Yet even if it is proved that it is all the fault of one party in the supply chain, that will do almost nothing to restore the retailers’ reputations with the public back home.

The main lesson seems to be that the complexity of modern supply chains means that a universal traceability system is essential. And it clearly needs to be more robust than that currently in place for meat supply, even if the reason the supply train has broken down is due to retailers piling on the pressure.

A further lesson for all of us, retailers included, might be: ‘buy local’. Those retailers that source primarily within the UK such as Morrisons and the Co-Op, seem less vulnerable. At least for their own-brand products and particularly where they retain a vertical structure and own their own farms.

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