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August 13th, 2014

The Bread of Circuses

BY Christian Ford

You may recall that Britain was in an uproar last year when horse meat was discovered masquerading as beef in a variety of frozen supermarket foods, such as “all beef” lasagna and “economy” burgers.  We took a peek at the blackly comic spectacle of various pots calling the stove black in the wake of the scandal, but more sober intelligences have also been looking.

One of them is Prof. Chris Elliott of Queen’s University, Belfast.  He’s the director of the Global Institute for Food Security who was tapped by the British government to examine the food system and see why it was funneling Old Paint into the beef chain.  The answer, not really all that surprising, is that you get what you pay for.

Let’s quote the good professor to understand exactly how this works, while enjoying a bit of dry British humor.

How to produce a ‘gourmet’ burger for less than 30p

As well as considering good industry practice, of which there is much, part of my task as Reviewer has been to look at the murkier practices that go on often unnoticed within food supply chains. One supplier of carcase meat and meat products told me in confidence of a meeting with a retailer in which they were asked to produce a 4oz ‘gourmet’ burger for a unit price of under 30p. The supplier believed that by using the cheapest beef available priced at 264p/kg – the meat being from older cow rather than prime young beef – and factoring in fixed costs including labour, packaging and transport, the lowest possible unit price for the burger would be 59p. To produce a 4oz ‘gourmet’ burger at a cost price of less than 30p, the supplier calculated that the average price of beef would need to be just 85p/kg.

With the help of the supplier and my subject matter experts I have considered how it would be possible to produce a ‘gourmet’ burger to this price specification. A simple way to reduce the average price would be to switch to beef supplied from premises that were not EU approved at approximately 140p/kg. Use of offal, such as heart meat, which trades at between 70-110p/kg, would drop the cost even further, while using mechanically separated meat (MSM), which trades at market prices of around 120p/kg and must be clearly labelled as MSM, is another possible means of driving down the unit cost. Of course, where a product – irrespective of price – is made with meat from approved EU premises and is correctly labelled it would be entirely legitimate (although in this particular example I very much doubt the description ‘gourmet’ could be applied), but anecdotal evidence from producers suggests that as raw material passes through many different hands, descriptions may have changed by the time the finished product finally reaches the shelf.

So it turns out that when the entities that supply your food — call them supermarket chains — force prices on their suppliers that cannot be delivered legally, you get illegal food.   The flip side of this is Bren Smith — exactly the kind of young, smart, big-thinking guy you want out there producing a prototype for twenty-first century farming.  He just opined in the Times about how all the young, smart farmers (who haven’t turned to crime) are dead broke, and what he’s really talking about is a kind of broken that has nothing to do with money.

Food is cheap, and yet it seems expensive.  Historically, as a percentage of household income, no culture on earth has ever spent less buying groceries than modern America.  If that conflicts with your lived experience — as it does with mine — consider that there are, quite literally, so very many more things to spend one’s money on than there used to be.  Cell phones and downloads, GPS and botox, apps and college.  The pie, to use a culinary metaphor, isn’t getting any bigger, but the number of slices that need to be got out of it keeps climbing.

All this occurred in tandem with the fundamental stall in the growth of household income which happened in the 1970s (unless you were already rich, in which case the dollars kept coming.)  The income wall was camouflaged for years by (1) the increase in two-income families and (2) the debt/credit orgy that went down in flames in 2008.  But now — one hundred years to the month from when the Great War officially kicked off modern industrial life — we’ve got a clear view of how the needables of a modern industrial life and the wherewithal to pay for it belong to two different realities — or rather, one fantasy and one reality.

Something’s got to give and, at the moment, that something is food.  The Elliott Report’s point is that organized crime has discovered the food system.   The reason is that broad-minded criminals see “huge profits and low risks” in the food system, not merely because the regulation and inspection arms of government have been completely neutered in both the UK and US, but because the entire system is built on a kind of plausible deniability.  The grocery chain that gives a “gourmet burger for 30p” ultimatum to its suppliers not only doesn’t want to know what it takes to get that done, but has no way of knowing even if they wanted to.  The same goes for the shopper who picks it up and thinks, “wow, that’s too good to be true,” and then stops thinking at all.

It’s part of a greater crisis of “food authenticity,” where all manner of food is not what it seems to be; far more “organic” food is sold than is produced, for instance.  This isn’t new, as Bee Wilson’s can’t-look-away-from-the-carwreck “dark history of food adulteration from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee,” so evidently shows.  But the horse meat version reveals a little more because the crime committed here wasn’t of substituting non-food for food, but rather a betrayal of presentation.  After all, horse is on the menu just across the English Channel.

Siobbhan Watters elegantly brings this into focus with the only thing that can make sense of it, namely French philosophers.  Specifically, she conjures the ghost of Guy Debord of the Situationist International, with his insistence that the commodification of everything leads to a society where the real — real food, real friends, real you-name-it — is replaced by the spectacle of such things.

That 30p “gourmet” burger — made somewhere by someone out of something — is a perfect example.  Whatever “gourmet” may mean, it probably doesn’t mean bits of flesh pressure-washer-removed from the bones of aging pet-food-grade livestock, but that’s what 30p is going to get you.  Well, that, and some packaging — some really good packaging — that trumpets quality, value and taste.  The irony here, which isn’t really ironic at all, is that the packaging is made with the care, attention to detail and quality that one would hope would have gone into the dreck inside.  No one’s shaving pennies when it comes to product design because the spectacle is what’s for sale — and if you close your eyes and wish hard enough at dinner-time, you just might be able to convince yourself that you got what the box told you was coming.

It’s all more than faintly redolent of ancient Rome, where the Emperors distracted the  citizens from the decaying empire with free food and free entertainment, “bread and circuses” in the sarcastic words of Juvenal.  Looking back on it, you can see that the Romans had it pretty good.  We, after all, have to pay for the food, and our “free” web-entertainments extract their payments in more subtle ways.  But the worst part of it may be that our daily bread is sometimes made of nothing but circus.


Quoting Guy Debord by Renée Turner
Guerilla Art by B
Tesco Price Cuts by Craig Murphy
Tesco Packaging by Tesco
“Romans” by Nathan Gibbs
Guy Enshrined by Petros V.
Colosseum by Vince O’Sullivan
Colosseum Pigeon by Oliver Wagemann