The spider in the cup

May contain salt and pepper, if she unscrews those caps
May contain salt and pepper, if she unscrews those caps

 Findus, whose horse lasagne is now world famous, has a section on their French website called “Agri Confiance®”, promising “confidence from the pitchfork to the fork!” They explain how Agri Confiance® ensures the total traceability of your food by perfectly identifying all the different stages of production, from the plot of land through to the final transformation. That final transformation of horse into cow must be a trade secret because they don’t mention it.

The whole affair raises the question of whether the food industry can be trusted. Given the number of laws and regulations governing it and the number of scandals that keep on happening anyway, “no” seems the obvious answer. It’s only natural therefore that governments try to impose standards on what we eat and drink, and have traditionally done so. Roman legislation on consumer protection, for example, was just as elaborate as some of today’s laws, but the world’s first comprehensive modern food law was the UK’s 1860 Act “Preventing the Adulteration of Food and Drink.”

If you’ve read TC Boyle’s Water Music, set a few decades earlier, you probably remember “Chichikov’s Choice”, a caviar Ned Rise makes from frog spawn and shoe polish. It sounds far-fetched, but the report of the parliamentary Committee set up to examine the need for the 1860 Act shows that food (in towns at least) wasn’t better in the good old days. The list of additives includes plaster of Paris and copper sulphate in bread, sawdust in chicory, and sulphuric acid in gin. The Committee members were given the chance to try a popular “gunpowder tea” sold in the poor quarters of London. As the report says, “the Committee did not venture to taste it, but they were assured its flavour was very peculiar”. That would be the silkworm dung added to make the tea look stronger.

The parliamentary debates leading up to the Act sound almost identical to today’s discussions for and against government intervention. John Roebuck, member for Sheffield, claimed that if the “Bill were carried into effect it would create such confusion in London that no shopkeeper would pass a quiet life.” According to John Wise, Member for Stafford, the Committee had established that adulteration was practised wherever it was possible, adding that “Nor have the poor the same power to protect themselves … as their richer neighbours; they are necessarily limited to such means of purchase as are afforded by the immediate locality in which they reside…”. Speaking in a parliamentary debate on 12 February, London MP Diane Abbott said “… there are families in communities such as mine who eat an awful lot of cheap, processed food. They deserve absolute assurances about its quality.”

So what has changed? Multinational retailers and food manufacturers now dominate the industry. They put enormous pressure on suppliers to cut costs and nothing is wasted. At the start of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair summed up the meat industry’s approach by saying “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” His 1906 novel The Jungle contains sickening descriptions of the Chicago meatpacking industry and actually helped to get the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act passed that same year.

The food industry opposed that legislation, as it opposes many attempts to impose any form of regulation other than self monitoring. Speaking at an OECD Food Chain Network meeting last October, Professor Tim Lang from the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London said that “In spite of the growing evidence since 2000, the mainstream agenda for the food system remains anchored in reducing government involvement; changing consumer behaviour through ‘nudges’ and information availability and continuing to deliver internal supply chain efficiencies.  Essentially this agenda says the food system is fine.”

Obviously it’s not. That said, legislation can sometimes have unintended negative consequences. Last year, the EU banned “desinewed” meat in low cost meals. This includes MRM (mechanically recovered meat) obtained by blasting bones with high-pressure hoses after cutting away what you and I would probably think of as meat. With pink slime (as it’s also known) unavailable, the industry looked for equally cheap alternatives, often from suppliers or even countries they hadn’t used before.

That brings us to the second major feature of the modern food industry: the global supply chain, or what a recent OECD study describes as “growing fragmentation of production across more economies”. Dozens of different companies and intermediaries may be involved in supplying “meat” to the final processor. The latest scandal shows that nobody is really sure that all their partners can be trusted, with everybody claiming they were duped by somebody else.

Walmart’s disclaimer is charmingly frank about this, warning the customer not even to trust them: “While we strive to obtain accurate product information, we cannot guarantee or ensure the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of any product information.” Their UK subsidiary ASDA tries to be more reassuring: “…because products are regularly improved, the product information, ingredients, nutritional guides and dietary or allergy advice may occasionally change.” (We’ve upgraded your beef burger from a boring old cow to something more classy).

By the way, one of the intermediaries selling meat to the French food processors is Draap, owned by a trust registered in our old friend the British Virgin Islands. According to The Guardian, Draap’s sole director is an anonymous Cyprus-based corporate services company called Guardstand, who also owned a share in a business called Ilex Ventures. US prosecutors allege that “merchant of death” Viktor Bout gave Ilex funds to purchase aircraft to fly arms and ammunition around Africa’s trouble spots in breach of embargos.

A couple of weeks ago, Rod Kramer and Todd Pittinsky wrote on the Insights  blog that “Political and business leaders often bemoan the “fragility” of trust – so hard to earn and so easy to lose, they whine. But that’s exactly the way it should be.” The horse meat scandal proves their point. The violent reaction of many consumers is due to the fact that they have suddenly discovered a disgusting truth. In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare compares this feeling of betrayal to discovering that you’ve drunk from a cup that had a spider in it. If you never find out about the “abhorr’d ingredient”, you won’t be bothered, but if you do…

There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink; depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected), but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

Useful links

OECD work on restoring trust