Are councils and hospitals “to blame” for horsemeat scandal? (Answer – probably not!)

People do say some pretty daft things under the pressure of a live TV interview.

Yesterday, Malcolm Walker, Chief Executive of Iceland (food retailers) and a long-standing senior figure in the grocery world, blamed local councils and hospitals, and their procurement people by implication, for the horsemeat scandal.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Malcolm Walker said the "problem really lies" with councils buying food from the poorly supplied catering industry. Retailers should not be blamed for the horsemeat crisis, Mr Walker added.

That seemed a bit of a logical leap, although we'll look harder at his comments later. But then the interestingly named Sir Merrick Cockell, a councillor in Kensington and Chelsea and leader of the Local Government Association, which represents Councils across England and Wales, said this when interviewed on the BBC and asked about Walker's comments. .

"It's somehow silly for him to claim that price is connected to quality..."

I had to play that back a couple of times to make sure I'd heard him correctly - centuries of economic theory demolished there by Sir Merrick, and I'll be off for my £5 Michelin starred dinner at one of the fine restaurants in his borough tomorrow. Because thinking that price is connected to quality is “silly”!.

Joking aside, he did go on to say some more sensible things - that this scandal is basically a question of not getting what you'd paid for and what was on the label, and of course he's right. But it is also obvious that price does link to quality in some way. And have public sector buyers been over-zealous in driving down prices in certain areas?

There is actually one easy way to tell. Look at the evaluation methodology. Now this may all seem a little obscure to those of you outside the public sector, but in the vast majority of public competitive tender situations, both "price" and "non-price" factors will be marked and there will be a weighting in terms of how important each is.

I've written a lot about this topic, and I should say it is not just the weighting that matters - the actual scoring mechanism also affects the final outcome. But as a rough guide, if you want to see how much emphasis there is on price, look at its weighting.

Now my experience over the years is that if anything, the public sector underweights price more often than it overweights it - in my opinion at least.  And by the way, when you hear unsuccessful suppliers claiming that the public sector "just buy on price", that is in 95% of cases just their excuse for losing the tender. 99% of tenders include price and non-price evaluation criteria.

So, if we looked at the weighting put on price in tenders for food products issued by councils and hospitals, we should find out if Mr Walker has a point. So anyone got a couple of days spare, to send a few Freedom of Information requests out? Or anyone like to volunteer their scoring methodology?

I took a quick look at the ESPO website  - the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation - who put many contracts in place that can be used by Councils and Hospitals. They have a number of catering and food framework contracts - for instance this one.

"The Frozen Foods Framework provides a range of delivered goods to include but not limited to Fish, Meats, Vegetables, Chips and Potato specialities, Burgers and Sausages, Savoury and Sweet buffet, Desserts, Puddings, Ice cream, Bread, Cakes and Patisserie".

The suppliers on this framework are:

  • BFS Group T/A 3663
  • Blakemore Foodservice
  • Brake Bros
  • Hopwells

They are, as far as I know, all very well established firms, and not the lowest price suppliers, I'd wager. It's certainly hard to believe they are the sort of firms who would risk their good name by supplying dodgy products to schools or hospitals. So I'm very doubtful about Walker's claim - but more evidence, for or against, would be interesting.

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Voices (5)

  1. Dave Orr:

    Why did the Governmnet remove nutritional standards for school meals from Academy schools then? Little known chef & campaigner Jamie Oliver had strong views. that this was Regulation for minimum standards for childrens’ nutrition and NOT bureaucracy.

  2. bitter and twisted:

    How do our institutions catering budgets compare to ‘should cost’ analysis of a decent standard of food?

  3. Planbee:

    Hmmm I am not sure there is a 100% link between price and quality, Certainly paying more is no guarantee of quality (have you never had a bad meal in a posh restaurant)

    Also there is an argument that goes along the lines of buying from a cheaper supplier may well mean that you are buying from the best supplier, because they reach the lower costs only by being the most efficient. However there is of course a point at which the price is so low it is impossible to supply a quality product.

  4. Final Furlong:

    The clue is in the title of the framework – frozen foods. Nutritional content value of, erm, ice.

  5. Charles:

    Wasn’t 3663, the distie supplying prisons with halal products containing pork DNA. How do prisons differs from schools and hospitals?

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