Excuse the dreadful pun. The big news story at the moment is that DNA testing isrevealing that some of the meat on sale in supermarkets in the UK isn’t the species it is claimed to be. Tesco is in the spotlight right now, though other chains are affected as well. As the biggest and most aggressive retailer it isn’t surprising that Tesco makes the headlines, and of course they have got form for this kind of thing. They had to withdraw sweets made in China that were contaminated with melamine five years ago.
I think the problem is a deep rooted one, and one that isn’t limited to Tesco. The supermarkets are run by professionals who take their jobs seriously and are just as ethical as the rest of us. And they certainly do have systems and procedures in place to ensure that things are done they way that they, and we, would expect them to be. I can remember once getting caught up in an ethical audit when I happened to be visiting a factory that supplied one of the big multiple retailers. They had turned up unannounced and proceeded to check that everything was in order. This included selecting people at random and asking them questions, including making sure that they were actually employed on a salary and weren’t slaves. This amused everyone. It is good to live in a country where human rights are so taken for granted.
Tightly controlling things can work. Drugs are very effectively regulated. This makes them expensive and it takes a long time to get to market. I think most people would agree that the trade off is a worthwhile one. We don’t want cheap drugs if they aren’t safe. But supermarkets simply can’t do the same without imposing huge costs on their customers.
The trouble is that with the best will in the world, which is I am sure what the people at Tesco have, the supply chain that the supermarkets have created globally is almost impossible to control. The incentives to malpractice are huge. Substituting horse for beef in a prepared meal can only save a tiny fraction of its production cost. But multiply that by the millions of units a retailer like Tesco can shift and it becomes very tempting.
There is only so much that written policies and regular inspections can achieve. There are a lot of brains out there thinking of ways to avoid detection. And there are so many stages in the supply chain where a small deception can be highly profitable.
We all enjoy the low prices and convenience of supermarkets. But I think scandals like the current meat one are an inevitable consequence. Personal Care and beauty products are just as likely as any other kind of goods to be the next front page story. I mentioned melamine earlier – well it ended up in a novelty chocolate flavoured product marketed by Ann Summers. I am not sure whether that counts as part of the personal care industry, but it isn’t far off. It was certainly intended for the skin.
As long as we spend so much of our money in the big retailers I think we have to live with the fact that from time to time we are going to buy something that is not what it says on the pack.