By Joe Cox
If you told me a few weeks ago I would be writing about horse meat I wouldn't have believed you, it isn't the sort of thing my organisation Compass thinks a lot about. Nonetheless this scandal tells us a lot about the state of our politics, economy and the cost of living crisis. So what have we learnt?
1) Globalisation makes it hard to regulate businesses.
Dr Mark Woolfe, ex-Food Standards Agency (FSA) head of food authenticity, said on changes to EU regulation yesterday: "There was an obvious risk. The companies were seeking a low price and that is asking for trouble. In principle there should not be anything wrong with a company going abroad for meat, as the EU has the same rules, but in practice the longer and more complex the supply chain, the more difficult it is to control. That is a lesson we have learned the hard way."
Globalisation and in particular the breaking down of national barriers to trade has made regulation more difficult, not just in food production but across many industries. The growth of outsourcing has also meant that the power of trade unions as a check on management and owners has dwindled. Responses such as supranational regulation and international trade unions can help but we should also be asking, is increasing complexity and opacity of international business a good thing?
2) The fetish for deregulation is hugely damaging.
It seems almost ridiculous to have to reiterate this after the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression but politicians do not seem to have learned this most basic of lessons. The environment, food and rural affairs committee has criticised the diminished role of the FSA since it lost staff and funding since 2010. Again, it's obvious but it needs saying, cuts to regulators' budgets will leave citizens more vulnerable than before - no amount of 'efficiency savings' can avoid this truth.
Yet, even as we speak, ministers and civil servants are lobbying for a UK exemption to new EU rules around meat, fat and collagen content. Citizens and consumers need to stand up to the 'deregulation fetishists' who often cite our wellbeing as a reason for the very deregulation which ends up hurting us.
3) We need to revaluate our approach to food.
Britain is already going through a nutrition recession as the cost of living increases relative to wages and benefits. As a result there will be a temptation for government to facilitate a race to the bottom in food production but this solves none of the real challenges.
We need to fully revaluate our approach to food. Some commentators have suggested that some food has become too cheap. In one sense this is true, lots of cheap food doesn't account for the environmental externalities inherent in their production and sale but without tackling the cost of living crisis further price rises will hurt the poorest disproportionately.
The killer stat for me is that the UK already spends billions of pounds on ready meals every year and it's time to ask why we buy so many (relative to other countries). The answer, I would suggest, has lots to do with the dual pressures on people that come from inadequate incomes/benefits and a lack of time outside work to prepare and cook food. Facing up to this truth requires us to re-evaluate our politics, economics and lifestyles.
Joe Cox is a campaigner and researcher for the Compass pressure group.
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