I'm taking a punt on horsemeat as our sustainability saviour

We may have unwittingly backed a winner in horsemeat, you know. I’m thinking sustainable consumption here. In this era of radical transparency, such a scandal is raising serious questions among the public at large over not only what they eat, but where the food on their plate originates from.


It doesn’t take much for consumer confidence to plummet and we Brits are quick to vote with our feet. Many burger hunters are now shunning the supermarket shelves and heading towards their nearest independent butcher or farmer’s market instead. This is a textbook lesson for the big corporates in how to screw up on supply chain traceability.

So how did it get to this? Well, demand for cheap food certainly hasn’t helped – but there’s a deeper dynamic at play here I think. A leading commentator in this field, Forum for the Future deputy chief executive Sally Uren, hit the nail on the head when she recently said that consumers have, by and large, become totally disconnected from their purchasing decisions.

Not many shoppers give much thought to how their products or services are sourced. Few care either – except when they swallow something they hadn’t bargained on. In the case of horsemeat, Uren argues that supply chains need to be reconfigured to encourage people to care more about the journey taken, from field to plate.

What this sorry saga is already demonstrating however, is the potential to scale up better ways of consuming. More ethical, sustainable ways. According to a report in the Independent, since the horsemeat scandal bolted (sorry), almost one in three of us have stopped eating ready meals. Jamie Oliver must be swinging from the light bulbs.

Not only this, but more than half of the population feel meat imports should be banned until we can be clear of their origin. This level of public pressure, coupled with a Food Standards Agency inquiry that promises to be relentless, could build new levels of brawn into supply chains overnight.

Just take Tesco, for instance - its CEO Philip Clarke has wasted no time in pledging to tighten up supplier networks in a bid to win back public trust. In a video statement, Clarke said the company would set a new benchmark for the testing of products to give the public confidence that "if it isn’t on the label, it isn’t in the product".

Not just that, but the retailer plans to allow customers to judge this for themselves - we soon will be able to view on the company's website the farms and factories in which its food is produced. What will be interesting is to see whether public perception changes when these broadcasts go live. Watching a lasagna being put together in a fairly mechanical way might quell the appetite somewhat.

My betting is that as food system complexities start to get valuable air time, we'll be driven to make smarter choices about what we eat. A more sustainable diet, which puts value on fresh ingredients and quality food, is bound to tempt the taste buds. Even more so when you consider how climate change is impacting on food prices – low-input agriculture and enhanced energy efficiency offer great potential for building in greater resilience to these price spikes.

We are witnessing transitional change across the sustainability landscape. It's not inconceivable that this scandal could trigger acceleration towards localised economies, based on shorter supply chains, where food producers get a fairer deal. Now that's the type of horse I would back.

maxine perella

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: agriculture | Energy Efficiency | food | population | supply chain | sustainable consumption | tesco | traceability | video
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