We like to think that supermarkets would never sell us anything that wasn’t quite what it seemed. That’s what you expect from the shifty bloke down the market, isn’t it? But when minced-up Dobbin makes an unannounced appearance in beefburgers sold by Tesco, Iceland, Lidl, Aldi and the Irish chain Dunnes, it’s apparent that any such faith is misplaced.
Supermarkets pose as gatekeepers of national food safety, glittering edifices of hygiene, transparency and best practice. You’d think they’d run frequent tests to ensure that everything they sell is up-to-scratch and completely legit. After all, they constantly brag about their rigorous technical and quality-control standards.
Actually, our supermarkets have devolved that responsibility to their suppliers. Environmental health and trading standards officers used to make spot checks and announced inspections, but cuts put paid to that.
Now, providing a food-processing company has a paper trail that appears to demonstrate “due diligence” and conforms to “quality assurance” schemes, supermarkets take its products on trust. So unless a whistleblower tips off the authorities or obvious casualties line up in the form of poisoned consumers, any funny business in the factory goes undetected.
These same multiple retailers award contracts for millions of cheap meat products and ready meals, but are too mean to pay for them. So it’s no wonder that less scrupulous suppliers feel tempted to trade down on ingredient costs to make the sums work. Supermarkets haven’t a clue what’s really happening in the meat plant. All processed foods are susceptible to adulteration and fraud. To worry about what’s in your supermarket banger or burger isn’t paranoid – it’s sensible.
Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate