Ever since Sweeney Todd became an unwanted supplier to the pie trade, customers have sought reassurance about what they are eating.
Between 1820 and 1860 attention was drawn to the issue of food adulteration and this resulted in the 1875 Sale of Food Act.
The Act established two principal offences: the mixing of “injurious ingredients” and “selling to the prejudice of the purchaser a food not of the nature, substance or quality demanded”.
More than a hundred years ago, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s were established with the sole purpose of supplying safe and healthy food to Londoners of the day. The current food news will quite understandably alarm a new generation about what they may be eating, just as BSE sent similar shockwaves more than 20 years ago.
However, in some of the more hysterical reporting, two issues have been conflated to undermine confidence. Many of the food products sold come from factories that deal with multiple species they may freeze pork sausages, beef burgers and lamb joints all on the same day. In doing so there is a small risk of cross-contamination if the equipment is not properly cleared between production runs.
At Waitrose, we have a team of 70 food technologists whose job it is to make sure that the products we put on our shelves are precisely as we have specified. If not, the product is withdrawn. These procedures and tests are not new, and withdrawals as a consequence of human error are a feature of the way the food industry does business.
If, like Waitrose, 100pc of your beef comes from British farmers and is grown and processed to your own bespoke high standards at a dedicated abattoir, your quality should be assured. The risk emerges if you then send the beef to a third party to freeze, who mixes in another species because of a breakdown in their process.
Our response to make sure we remove that risk is to now set up our own freezing plant at our beef abattoir so that no cross-contamination can take place in the future. Where product will need to go to a third party for further processing we will increase our testing regime and ask our producer to do the same. I am sure that increased testing will be a part of what others do too.
But the issue of cross-contamination is wholly different from finding the substantive part of a product contains horse meat. That is clearly unacceptable. But how and why might that happen? We only stock fresh and frozen beef, pork and chicken from British farmers. This means we are able to work closely with our farmers and constantly check the quality and provenance of our meat.
The only exception to our British-only sourcing policy is lamb, which is a seasonal meat and requires some New Zealand lamb to make up our requirements outside the UK season. Mirroring our approach at home, we have established a small group of New Zealand farmers who work closely with us to complement our English and Welsh lamb producers.
If, however, meat is being purchased blind from outside the UK, and sometimes even via the internet in bulk, it is less easy to find those guarantees that full knowledge and traceability give.
If, at the same time, there is a requirement to hit a price point for consumers under financial pressure then there will be an inevitable strain in the supply chain. If the question is “Who can sell the cheapest stuff?” I’m afraid it is inevitable that there will be a slackening of product specifications even if, not as concerning as the current situation, it’s less mint in spearmint gum or not as thick a layer of chocolate on your biscuit.
What makes the equation even more difficult is the current large increase in the cost of livestock, as the price of feed and greater demand put pressure on supply. As a consequence, it may well be the case that, somewhere along that long supply route, somebody has looked to cheat and take advantage of these circumstances either for their own personal greed or to keep a company afloat.
The simple fact is that food cannot be seen as a cheap commodity when so many factors are working against that premise, including population growth, climate change, greater urbanisation, and the spread of a Westernised diet in the developing world.
If something good comes of the current scandal, I hope it is the opening up of a debate around the true economics of food and a determination on the part of everybody in the food industry to apply renewed rigour to their processes and testing regimes to ensure that customers can relax and enjoy the food they buy.
Mark Price is managing director of Waitrose