Supermarket boardrooms may be scrambling for damage limitation; and consumers and government departments may be wondering what the next revelation in adulterated or misrepresented food will be – but other people involved in food production are, primarily, angry.
My husband is a dairy farmer. Like his colleagues – many of who are attending the National Farmers’ Union opening today in Birmingham – he struggles with a low income and ever-rising costs, but I would say (and I would have said this before the horsemeat scandal) that one of his biggest challenges is inspection and red tape.
I could give you more examples than you could imagine. But a few stick in the mind. There was the farm assurance inspector accompanied by someone assessing how he did his job. They delayed milking by more than an hour and a half on a wet November evening and pointed out things like, «Well, the drive could be cleaner». As my husband said, the road leading to the farm was at least as muddy as the drive – something that tends to happen in the countryside in November.
Another inspector pointed to splats of muck on the parlour wall – inevitable when you milk. Then there was the time our calf passport application was a few days late. The result of my husband’s plea that he may have been a bit last–minute in posting the application form, but it was an honest mistake? The Hereford bull calf could never enter the food chain – no excuses, no second chances and no possible way of circumventing the law and regulations as they apply to the farmer trying to rear what would be a prime beef animal. By now, you may be beginning to see why my husband and many of his fellow farmers feel frustration and anger.
The law books argue that when it comes to food and negligence, strict liability applies and most of us can probably see that this has got to be the case. Producing, cooking or selling food can have potentially deadly consequences. No matter how many times supermarket or government representatives argue that there is no danger from eating food containing rogue DNA, most consumers probably feel – at the very least – uneasy about it. And these horses have not been reared for the food market. A dairy farmer, for instance, who fails to withdraw the milk of a cow treated with antibiotics will soon find himself facing a heavy fine.
Our local weekly cattle market, the farmers sometimes joke, hosts almost as many trading standards and other officials as farmers. I have played devil’s advocate sometimes when my husband has been having a little rant about this. «Look, there are good reasons for this level of inspection,» I’d say. Now, I have to wonder. Where were the inspectors in the food processing plants?
It looks like supermarkets are so powerful that they will be able to weather this. They are so powerful that not only the consumers, but governments and certainly suppliers, must fall into line. A few years ago farmers were leaving the dairy industry at an unprecedented rate, because milk prices had hit a new low. Retailers began to worry. It seemed like good news when some of the supermarkets offered contracts to «dedicated milk suppliers», offering a considerably better price than other buyers. But they required a hefty quid pro quo.
We know farmers who did sign up. The supermarket dictates their job to a surprising degree. This may take the form of insisting that farmers attend certain courses; in some cases they are penalised if they refuse to show the supermarket their books. I’m sure they would argue that this is about ensuring the highest standards of food production and animal welfare. But, as my husband says, the vast majority of farmers do not need anyone to tell them this.
All this cavalier power-wielding sits crazily with the reality of the processed meat industry. The massive contradiction can only indicate one of two things. Either one hand does not know what the other is doing in the mass-retail sector. Or it’s something more sinister. Is the farmer-friendly countryside–friendly image peddling just a cover-up for the true state of affairs?
Noreen Wainwright is married to a dairy farmer. They have 60 dairy cows in the Staffordshire Moorlands. She’s a freelance writer and works as a mentor and support worker at her local university.