Over the last few months the news has been full of food, but not in a way that gives anyone much of an appetite...
It began on 14 January 2013 when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland revealed that millions of burgers being sold in UK supermarkets weren’t all that they seemed to be.
Over the following weeks it emerged that some beef products in British shops like meatballs, lasagnes, burgers and minced beef actually contained some horsemeat. In some cases all of the meat in the meal came from horses.
Thousands of tonnes of food were removed from supermarkets shelves. Abattoirs (where animals are slaughtered for food) and food-processing companies have shut down and multiple arrests have been made by police investigating the scandal.
The question is: in a country that produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of beef each year, how have we ended up with a situation where we don’t know where our meals are coming from, or even what animal provided the food on our plates?
This issue of Geography in the News will focus on the food industry in the UK and Europe. In particular we will look at:
Six months ago most people in Britain would have assumed that the burger or lasagne on their plate contained beef that came as directly as possible from the farm to the shop. After all, in many supermarkets in the UK you can see the butchers preparing the food in the shop.
Unfortunately it turns out that in many cases the story is nowhere near that simple! Several factors have come together to make our food supply chain much more complex than you might think...
The term ‘supply chain’ is used to describe the system that moves a product from the supplier (the farm) to the customer (that’s us). In the case of our tasty beefburger the simplest food supply chain might be:
Farmer → Butcher → Customer
These days many butchers do not slaughter their own meat, but use an abattoir instead, which gives us:
Farmer → Abattoir → Butcher → Customer
However, as we shall see, the reality is often much more complicated. This is particularly the case when it comes to minced or ground meat products like burgers and ‘processed foods’ like ready-meals.
Before we look at an example of the type of complex food supply chain that bought horsemeat to British stores, let’s look at how the scandal emerged:
Beefburgers produced by an Irish company, ABP Silvercrest, are found to contain horsemeat.
The company insists that it had not known that some of the meat came from horses, and blames its suppliers instead.
Food retailers, including Aldi, Tesco, Lidl, Iceland, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, remove some of their frozen food products from shelves.
Food from more producers in Ireland, UK and France are found to contain horsemeat.
Findus beef lasagnes, produced by French company Comigel, are found to contain 100% horsemeat (see interactive map below).
Meat-traders, abattoirs and meat-factories are raided by the police, included Farmbox Meats Ltd near Aberystwyth.
The owner of the Welsh company is arrested and the Farmbox Meats plant is closed.
Investigations into the horsemeat scandal continue in Ireland, the UK and Europe.
Horsemeat in Findus lasagnes sold in the UK is traced back to abattoirs in Romania.
The Romanian company insists that the producer knew that it was buying horsemeat when it placed the order.
So why has horsemeat in food caused such a scandal? After all, restaurants and shops in lots of European countries sell horsemeat openly and the public are happy to eat it.
It is perfectly safe to eat horse, provided that the farms, abattoirs and factories are run properly – just like any other meat.
The problem was not safety, but rather of the mislabelling of food. If a lasagne is sold as ‘beef’ then it must only contain meat from cows. If not, then the company supplying it can be prosecuted for fraud – a very serious crime in the UK.
There is also concern amongst some religious groups such as Jews and Muslims that ‘beef’ products might contain pork, which they are not permitted to eat.
So how have we ended up with a system where getting meat from a farm to a shop has become so complicated? Surely it is easiest for supermarkets to buy their food locally?
There are several factors involved:
As transport and communication systems have advanced, trade between different countries has increased.
Because costs like animal feed, workers’ wages and fuel vary from country to country, it is often cheaper for UK companies to source their food products from outside the UK.
Cost-cutting and budget foods
Almost all supermarkets sell a range of low-price foods which are popular with customers keen to make their food budget stretch as far as possible.
To make this possible, food-production companies do not rely on one or two farms or factories. Instead they use a large network of other companies to find them the cheapest meat possible at any particular time.
Much of the food industry in the UK used to be careful monitored by the government. In recent years, however, rules have been relaxed in a process called ‘deregulation’.
The meat industry is now expected to police itself, while the government body in charge, the Foods Standards Agency, has limited powers.
Although food companies should be able to prove exactly where the meat they sell comes from (traceability), the recent scandal has shown that this is not the case.
All of the above, as well as other factors, have resulted in long, complex food-supply chains that are hard to follow or regulate. The potential for mistakes, as well as deliberate rule-breaking, is huge.
One example we mentioned above was that of Findus frozen lasagnes, sold in UK supermarkets, which were found to contain 100% horsemeat. The interactive map below shows just how complicated the journey from farm to plate has become.
As an entry into the lesson, the class should use the internet or local newspapers to find out about a local ‘farm shop’:
Where does their meat come from?
Roughly how far does it travel to get to the shop?
Where is the abattoir? Do they butcher their own meat?
Then, using this article and other sources of information, compare the food supply chain for the farm shop’s meat to that of a pre-prepared meal (like a frozen lasagne or cottage pie) sold in a supermarket:
How many steps are there in the supply chain?
What is the difference in the distance that the meat travels?
How many countries and companies are involved in the production process?
Present your findings in a short written report, using illustrations and tables where appropriate. Finish the report with your own ideas about how it can be cheaper for supermarkets to sell meat made in factories many hundreds of miles away, rather than from local suppliers.