As the scandal of food adulteration spreads, Simon Basketter looks at the how the pursuit of profit makes meat slaughter and processing anything but safe
The meat industry is a bizarre world. It goes from the boardrooms of some of the largest companies on the planet to killing floors with medieval working conditions.
But it is not the barbaric working conditions of the slaughterhouse that lie behind the ongoing horsemeat scandal.
Instead it is a conspiracy between agribusiness and supermarkets to produce cheap, adulterated food that is one thing but pretends to be another.
This is not about individual gangsters playing fast and loose with a few animal carcasses to make a quick buck. This is systematic.
Supply chains are deliberately complicated.
There is a market in meat prices and there is a drive from the big supermarkets to source meat at the cheapest price wherever it is available.
That price changes constantly, partly because prices are subject to speculation on the commodity markets.
Supermarkets and food processors operate “just in time” production. Yet the product takes a set time to grow and is only ready for slaughter for a limited time.
So processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice.
This makes it all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted in big abattoirs and processing plants.
That provides the opportunity for adulterating meat.
Beef trades globally at about £1.85 a kilo. The price of top quality beef prices has gone from just over £2 a kilo in 2006 to £3.77 a kilo this year. That provides the motive.
Take the case of a Findus ready meal adulterated with horsemeat.
Comigel, a firm based in north eastern France, supplies Findus and makes products for food suppliers and retailers in 16 countries.
The Findus meal went through a Comigel factory in Luxembourg before it reached France.
Comigel, in turn, was supplied with meat from a company in south western France called Spanghero.
The meat for the Findus meal went to France via a Cypriot trading company after it left abbatoirs across Europe, including Britain. And somewhere in this long process, it became adulterated with horsemeat.
In another case meat used in Tesco beef burgers had come from Freeza Meats in Newry, Northern Ireland. It then transpired that the meat had gone to Newry from a firm called Food Service in Poland. It was 80 percent horsemeat.
There is enormous profit to be made in the processing of food.
Value is added in the killing and packaging of animal carcasses—getting the most beef for your buck.
That has meant a consolidation of large-scale animal production for decades.
It is focused around abattoirs whose sole purpose is to extract as much flesh as possible.
The European beef processing industry is, like most other sectors of the food industry, dominated by a handful of companies.
These are ABP Group, Dawn Meats and Vion.
They were a response to the concentration of buying power in big supermarkets.
Supermarkets have put the big meat processors under constant pressure to keep costs down. The processors put pressure on producers to cut costs in response.
If you are a beef farmer, you have little choice of processor to sell your cattle to. This is despite the fact that beef prices on the commodity markets have been near historic highs.
The firms at the heart of the food industry have made a mint out of meat. But time after time, ordinary people have paid the price for it.