Thursday, January 8, 2015

Professor Elliot, Horsemeat, and the High Cost of Cheap

"Paardenrookvlees" by Takeaway - Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Well, after many delays, concerns, and political panic attacks, the Elliot report (pdf), (precisely, the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks) has finally been released in the UK. Professor Elliot, a food safety academic from Queen's University in Belfast, chaired the committee, and the final report bears his name. Like the IPCC climate report, the final version has been subject to intense political negotiation by the affected parties before the report's release, which makes, like the IPCC report, the observations and recommendations pretty amazing. Professor Elliot, in the opening paragraphs of the report says:
I published my interim report in December 2013 which set out what should be done to address weaknesses in the system.Stakeholders welcomed the interim report and the opportunity to provide further feedback before I published this final report.I have since completed a further round of meetings and evidence gathering. Stakeholders felt that the final report should provide additional background about the recommendations and their implementation. Feedback has further shaped my recommendations and this, my final report, sets out the issues and the best way to tackle them in more detail.
 Had Professor Elliot been able to be a bit more frank, the passage might read "My preliminary report freaked out the government and food industry so much that they threatened me, my crew, and my university until I was forced to use much less dangerous political language--particularly that I should make it clear that it wasn't business' fault." You know, just like the IPCC.
The most media-friendly takeaway from the report seems to be that organized crime has a pretty big share of the UK food supply, and that it doesn't play by the rules. Which, to be fair, is pretty interesting. But the report also makes the point that the only way organized crime got a foothold in the food system is through 1) the complexity of the food supply chain, and 2) the concentration on price as the only significant driver on the food supply.
The report points out the difficulty of knowing how bad food fraud and food crime are in the UK:
[M]ore information about the extent of food crime was sought. The review contacted food businesses through trade associations and also territorial police forces. [...] Whilst it may appear from this feedback that food crime is not widespread in the UK, it is more likely that this confirms that evidence of food crime is not currently sought at the required level or with the necessary expertise. [....]
A total of 18 police forces responded to the request for information, 12 of which recorded no such cases [of food crime]. Several police forces highlighted a problem with extracting data on cases involving food crime as there is not currently a Home Office Crime Code for food contamination meaning it is not possible to search crime recording systems for food fraud. Food fraud may be costing UK food businesses a substantial amount of money and risks causing significant reputational damage. Importantly, some of the examples uncovered pose food safety risks. However, due to factors such as a lack of intelligence-based detection, the scale of the problem remains unknown. [sections 1.16 and 1.17]
 Nobody wants to know how extensive food fraud/food crime is in the UK. Food inspections agencies have seen their budgets cut (as had the CFIA in Canada) to the point where they are really just barely functioning fronts that perform minimal actual work. Food inspections have been off-loaded onto the companies producing the food, which have incentives for not finding any problems with the products flowing through the factory. The idea that the food industry needs impartial non-corporate oversight seems to have fallen out of favour with everyone except the public.
But the report also points out that:
Consumers have been accustomed to variety and access at low cost, and at marginal profit to suppliers. These factors have increased opportunities for food crime. [section 1.9]
 How do corporations maximize profit when they have trained consumers to concentrate on price over everything else? This is the Walmart principle of putting pressure on suppliers to lower costs to, quite frankly, levels that are impossible for manufacturers to survive on. They, in turn put pressure on their suppliers and workers to lower costs, or offshore to lower cost regimes. This system is detailed at length Ellen Ruppel Shell's book  Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

In terms of the food system, this manifests in adulteration of ingredients

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