One of the more disgraceful aspects of the wholly disgraceful horse-meat saga is the alacrity with which everyone has set out to pass the blame to someone else. Accountability is never the most visible quality in a crisis. Like truth in a war, it tends to be an early casualty. But the extent to which so many have sought to appear in charge, while trying to pin responsibility elsewhere – even on penny-pinching consumers foolish enough to trust labels they have every right to trust – has been little short of astounding.
The latest to join the blame game was the Prime Minister's office, which yesterday took retailers to task for their reticence. "Consumer confidence," a Downing Street source was quoted as saying, "is one of the things that has been missing, and that needs the retailers to explain themselves and what they have been doing." Nothing to do with the Government, then.
The retailers might have retorted that, after the initial public apologies from Tesco and Findus, they had been concentrating on deeds rather than words – to wit: ordering tests and removing products from their shelves. Within a few hours of the criticism, though, 11 of them, including Tesco and Asda, had come up with a joint public letter saying, in a typically brazen example of spreading the pain, that they "shared" people's "anger and outrage".
Nor is there any reason to doubt that. If shoppers have gone scurrying back to their local butcher – in those favoured places where both high street and butcher survive – it is the supermarkets that are the losers, and will remain so for a while. However thorough the investigation and however abject the apologies, consumers' trust in food labelling has taken a colossal knock.
UK retailers and producers alike will console themselves with the first results of the tests ordered by the Food Standards Agency, which have shown several big supermarket chains in the clear. But the same tests cast a shadow over more companies, including Compass Group, a big provider of school meals.
It bears repeating that so far, for all the concern about bute and perhaps other potentially harmful substances found in a small proportion of the meat tested, this is less a health scare and more a tale of fraud, profiteering and mislabelling. But the failures are strikingly similar to those which underlay the BSE scandal – for all the measures introduced to prevent any recurrence. Once again, the British system of food safeguards has fallen short.
The presence of horse DNA in meat labelled beef was first uncovered – or made public – by Irish food regulators. The whole British supply chain, from regulator to retailer, it seems, was content to take what was printed on the label on trust. And when UK products were found to be affected, everyone's first instinct was to blame the foreigner, in this case Romania, or that old faithful, the international conspiracy.
France – with so much at stake, given its huge food export industry – conducted its initial investigation with commendable dispatch, identifying one of its own meat-processing plants as suspect. Clearly, Irish and French regulatory procedures have something that ours lack – until, that is, crisis hits. The tally so far, aside from tons of ready-meals destroyed, is three arrests, at an abattoir in West Yorkshire and a processing plant in Wales – outfits whose appearance hardly inspires confidence in the rigour of UK sanitary inspections.
It almost beggars belief that, more than 20 years after the BSE scandal, British farms and British food safety are under the microscope once again. Unless everyone, from the Government down, takes regulation much more seriously, it is hard to be optimistic that something similar will not happen again.
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