Horse meat burgers and sustainability!

The headlines today offer a clear example of the problems with our current food policies. In this story there may be no danger to human health but there is a very grave danger, yet again, to trust and belief in business ethics. The various forces impinging on each element of the supply chain are working against each other as far as I see it. The number of steps involved from primary production to consumer means that there is no personal connection with suppliers so trust must be based on third party recommendations – labels, certificates, advertising etc. The consumer knows so little about nutrition and food that they select by price and advertising alone. Food producers are being squeezed by supermarket buyers to supply cheaper and cheaper food to meet the public’s demand in these straightened times.  Health authorities and agencies are under staffed but must try to ensure checks and balances are in place without interrupting the supply chain or damaging businesses and jobs. In order to meet large supply contract conditions the producers feel forced to buy in bulk from the cheapest sources. The result is many of us don’t know what we are eating.

These problems seem to be persistent. Each time one problem is addressed another one seems to surface. These ‘scandals’ are chipping away at the confidence the consumer wants to have in the system. Meat is particularly vulnerable to scare stories in screeching headlines because of the associated healh risks. This is a classic example of how we focus on efficiency yet seem to end up going backwards. The lower price figure which a large factory meat producer can offer has hidden costs to the system efficiency. To meet the agreed price, production throughput must be enormous. Supplies from further and further away must be funnelled to the large unit creating carbon footprint difficulties. The waste and residue issues mount exponentially demanding more drastic environmental solutions. Animal welfare and employee stress levels soar in these killing factories.

Is it possible that slowing down and spreading out the production process to smaller units might actually be more efficient in terms of the whole system? Would changing the distribution system to facilitate smaller suppliers to supply locally to a branch of a supermarket work better? Isn’t it time to consider how to diversify instead of standardise everything. Are these stories pushing consumers to consider their purchasing habits and might they be prepared to buy less but buy better food for themselves and their families? How will this affect the prices? Considering approximately 25% of food purchasers end up being wasted there must be room to address quantity over quality issues.

As these stories continue to emerge, small and medium sized producers may find ways into the market gaps these stories are creating. Trust and business ethics are at the heart of these issues. This is a growing market opportunity that can be met through a long term business strategy of moving towards sustainability. Doing things right in business is often trumped by the idolatory to the god of price but slow changes in market sentiment can build momentum and those businesses, that can prove their credentials and attain the trust of consumers, stand to gain in the long term.

 

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