Thursday, 21 February 2013

Meat contamination & the complexity of the supply chain

I cannot let this week’s column pass without the mention of horsemeat. It is clear the revelations concerning the contamination of a whole variety of processed beef products with horsemeat has taken many food producers, retailers and politicians totally by surprise. Indeed I think this is a “wake up call” for us all in that I suspect very few people knew the complexity of the supply chain which leaves huge scope for errors or deliberate fraud.

This is particularly frustrating for UK farmers who, following the BSE crisis are subject to the strictest rules regarding cattle traceability. I suspect most people would be amazed by the level of detail farmers have to go to registering every calf born with a unique identification number and then recording the movement of an individual animal every time it moves on and off a farm until it is eventually slaughtered. As a consequence it is possible to trace exactly where every bovine animal in the UK was born and where it has moved throughout its life – far more detail than we would have on humans.

Thus it seems almost incredible that although traceability has been maintained from the calving shed to the abattoir, something seems to have gone very badly wrong in getting certain products to the shop shelf. This will inevitably result in mistrust of the meat industry by consumers but I hope there will be a, or perhaps a number of silver linings to this particular cloud.

First, retailers and meat processors must realise that they now need to take a much higher degree of responsibility for managing the supply chain. Horsemeat is obviously a problem but if the contamination had had a serious public health dimension, the apparent lack of traceability and controls within the supply chain would have caused even more problems.

My hope is that retailers and processors will look to shorten the supply chain to manageable levels where traceability and quality will become the driving force. Our farmers have had to absorb the costs involved in the introduction of the British Cattle Movement Service following the BSE crisis and it is hoped they may now be able to reap the just rewards for the quality assurance this brings, which is something that it seems cannot be said for many products sourced from abroad.

The second potential silver lining is that I hope consumers will increasingly look to buy meat locally from known and trusted sources. This is a trend which is already happening but food scares such this must surely be a very good reason to support your local butcher and to encourage all our supermarkets to source meat from the UK where the traceability and quality of the product is assured.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

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