The tangled web of the horsemeat supply chain…

Oh! what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive!”  (Sir Walter Scott)

Indeed. So how is it that our supply chain for a seemingly simple ingredient – minced beef – has become quite so complex, quite so much of a tangled web?

It’s not as if we’re talking about a finely honed manufactured component, full of rare earth metals and strange processors or nano-technology micro-gizmos. Then you might understand why the supply chain could be somewhat complex.

But this is just chopped up cows.

Yet we have horses (and presumably cattle) from goodness knows where, being killed and processed in a slaughterhouse in Romania, then shipped to Spanghero, a trading firm in the south of France, who sell it on to Comigel, a manufacturer of ready meals hundreds of miles north in Luxembourg, who produce the frozen meals (branded with what was originally a Swedish firm’s name), that are shipped across the Channel and end up in supermarket freezers throughout the UK.

And one outcome from the complexity we’re seeing in this supply chain is that it will no doubt prove tricky to identify exactly where things went wrong here, whether it was incompetence or criminality.

It’s no surprise that Morrisons, the UK supermarket group that has followed (to some extent) a strategy of vertical integration, is making the most of this. Good for them.

Dalton Philips, the chief executive of Morrisons, said his supermarket also had absolute confidence in the food on sale at its stores, because it did not have a long, complicated supply chain. “We are firmly in the camp that you keep it simple, we own our abattoirs, we own our meat processing plants, so we have full traceability,” said Mr Philips.

(There’s also a very interesting article here from Professor Karel Williams in the Guardian, contrasting the large retailers’ approaches to the meat supply chain,).

Another point in all this is how it shows yet again the laws of unintended consequences. Two years ago, the European Union banned the export of live horses from Romania, in an attempt to prevent the spread of equine infectious anaemia, which had become common throughout the country. That led to more horses being slaughtered within the country, leading to a glut of horsemeat, and pressure on prices that seems to have led to abattoirs in France going out of business – one reason why Spanghero was importing.

It was suggested to me (and I haven’t been able to verify this) that another issue was the Romanian government clamping down on farmers using horses and carts on main roads. The consequence was farmers selling their horses (presumably to buy tractors or trucks), which again had contributed to this glut. Too much horsemeat available obviously depresses prices – at which point, the gain from passing it off as beef becomes greater and more tempting.

We still don’t know how widespread the problem is, or whether there might be an element of risk around drugs present in the horsemeat, so no doubt there’ll be more emerging information this week. Watch this space – and did you notice I got through this whole article without a single horse related pun?!

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