image by flickr4jazz

Horse Meat: Time for a “food enfranchise”!

Ordinary people going about their daily business. Picture the scene. Mothers going to their local supermarket to find a healthy meal for their families. Commuters on a train from one city to another getting a quick bite to eat on the move, a sandwich, a quick snack. Factory workers tucking in to beef ravioli at lunchtime. What do they all have in common? None of them actually knows what they’re eating any longer. That’s it in a nutshell. They are all facing a crisis which promises to upset the apple-cart and render their normal eating habits the way of the dodo.

I’m speaking of course about the appalling state of the current food chain which needs no qualifying explanation other than two simple words: Horse Meat.

There you go, I’ve said it. Horse Meat. If you’d said that too me ten months ago I’d have thought you were soft in the head.

Like practically everybody else, I was utterly shaken when I learned about the full extent of the so-called ‘horse meat scandal’ which has only seemed to gradually get worse day-by-day. As revelations keep coming up in the media, I like nearly everyone else am quite honestly sickened. My mind is uneasy with the exact same questions racing through millions of other peoples’ heads at the minute while we try to come to terms with what’s happening: “Is that hamburger safe to eat?….Is there really just ‘beef’ in that lasagne?’

The truth is we no longer feel secure. How can we? Our faith has been ridiculed. We’re all angered – angry with our food suppliers, with our supermarkets. We go into a shop now and see something labelled “such-and-such” and no longer trust that it is what it claims to be. As one man said on the ITV news, “It is the lack of knowledge that is concerning”. Food retailers have denied us the right to know. They have taken away our choice. We have been misled, cowed, betrayed, lied to, hoodwinked by the institutions we rely upon for the food on our dinner plates.

Retailers operate on the basis of trust – a mutual, two way relationship. That trust has been severely undermined by recent events and we, the average customer, have no faith any longer in the powers that be in the food industry.

Let’s not be shy in admitting it: the Horse Meat scandal has dented consumer confidence like nothing else. And it’s an outrage. It is systematic; it is all over the board. The entire food chain has been affected by it.

What steps can be taken? Surely, at the very least, there needs to be a major re-examination of food supply. As one hawk-eyed panellist said on a recent broadcast of Question Time we have a massive food chain spanning multiple countries in Europe that has been allowed to spiral out of control. According to recent evidence 15 countries are now directly affected by the scandal. The checks and balances, the vetting, the safety standards and procedures which we are all taught to believe will keep our food chain free from contamination, have failed us.

Like the Chartists in the 1840s, a working man’s movement which campaigned for political freedoms such as the vote and a secret ballot, we today need a six point Charter around which our food security can be re-established. We need a charter of “food rights” that can serve as a focal point for people in this period of unrest over the state of affairs in the food industry. In this spirit I call for:

  1. Freedom of choice
  2. The right to know
  3. A food market that caters for the needs of all
  4. Consumer confidence
  5. Clarity at point of sale
  6. Third party validation of food supply

Each one of these ‘points’ has been requested by Secularfood from the word go. On the 1st of January 2012, long before the Horse Meat scandal arose, Secularfood wrote in its Food for Thought section under the article “Your Food Your Way”:

 

“…We have become concerned that the average consumer has not been made fully aware – by food manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and fast food outlets – of the type of food which they consume on a daily basis.

 Consumers trust that their supplier will take all necessary precautions, including sufficient labelling and staff training, to ensure that they are able to make an informed decision regarding the kind of produce they are purchasing from food establishments, in keeping with their individual conscience and deeply held beliefs.

 However this would not appear to be the case. Rather a situation has arose whereby customers, for whatever personal reason whether religious; political; moral or else, are potentially buying and eating food which they believe is suitable and catered to their preference but which in reality is not…”

 

Recent events have only proven what Secularfood has known and warned about over the past year.

The time now seems ripe for a democratization of the food industry. I feel that it must come from the bottom-up and not from the top-down. The time has come for a true food ‘franchise’ – and by  that I mean franchise with its political definition: a vote. Give us the vote, the real say in what we want to eat. Why should we be denied it? We want the power to choose. We want the information to know. We, the average disenfranchised consumer, now want our rights to be properly respected.  We’re sick fed-up at the prospect of some vague, impersonal bureaucracy messing with our food. If not now, then when?