THESE are the darkest days for the food industry. Not since the BSE crisis in the spring of 1996 has public confidence in what we eat been so shaken.
Police investigations, arrests and health fears have no place in the food chain, but that is where we are this weekend.
The cause of the crisis is cheap food. A generation ago, the British spent about a third of household income on food. Now it is a measly 8.6 per cent, way behind most other European countries.
The French spend 14 per cent of their income on food but then we know they’ve always viewed it as important. They also don’t share our reliance on the supermarket trolley.
Make no mistake, the supermarkets lie at the centre of this dark web of deceit.
With their endless aisles of polished produce, they seem to make shopping safe and easy, but look closer. Unlike fruit, vegetables and fish, when it comes to meat there are plenty of places to hide.
For years cheap burgers, sausages and ready meals were bulked out with desinewed meat which involved machines using pressure to extract anything left on the bones.
New European Union regulations last year effectively brought an end to the practice. At the time, the food industry warned the move was likely to push up the cost of products such as burgers.
Instead, crooks swooped on the food chain and found an easy way to make a fast buck by bulking out value products with cheap horsemeat.
It’s ironic that more legislation opened the door for criminal activity which laughed in the face of the law.
That’s a lesson we should learn from this – and there are many others.
Over the past week, we’ve heard from the Food Standards Agency as it tries to play catch-up on the worst crisis on its watch.
We’ve heard from UK environment secretary Owen Paterson as he slowly moved from concern to outrage, and we’ve heard from farmers who are as horrified by this as the rest of us.
Where are the supermarkets? They are at the heart of this and must take responsibility for effectively engineering this crisis. As they pushed down the price of meat with suppliers, just how much did they know about the methods being used to achieve the required cost? None of the big names have been prepared to answer the difficult questions.
Instead, we must rely on a former supermarket boss and one of the key architects of this mess.
Last week on BBC Radio, former Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy was asked about the closure of butchers and baker shops up and down the land. He called it “the price of progress”. We can now see where that progress has taken us. So, is it a price we still want to pay?
The supermarkets say they have no evidence of any change in shopping habits. But they would say that. Turkeys generally don’t announce Christmas is coming, especially if they consist of 80 per cent equine DNA.
Anecdotal evidence is different. Some butcher shops report sales up 40 per cent in the past week. At one butcher in Edinburgh, the owner says business has been brisk.
“People are caring about food again. They want reassurance and they are seeking that from traditional butchers,” one butcher told me.
And no wonder. In the midst of the price wars, food scares and retail confusion lies the poor shopper who just wants to put a meal on the table that is good and healthy and doesn’t cost a fortune. They deserve better than where we are today.
Food needs to be as important to our national life as football, celebrity and fashion are at the moment, so today I am proposing a National Food Manifesto to get to the heart of this crisis and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
More legislation for suppliers isn’t the answer. This is food fraud and the law never deters criminals.
Instead, we need better labelling. If meat comes from outside the UK it should say so on the packaging.
At present, the ingredients in cheap ready meals clock up more miles than the participants in C4’s Coach Trip. We need to know that. It’s not enough to detail the amount of meat content. With more than 50 per cent of the public saying they prefer to buy local food, origin also matters.
We must give the Food Standards Agency serious powers. Instead of being a passive observer, it needs to be engaged with the food chain.
Inspections are currently the responsibility of the Meat Hygiene Service and Trading Standards but last year visits fell by 26 per cent due to budget cuts.
To streamline matters, the Food Standards Agency should take single agency responsibility for all food checking, including monthly random DNA tests with draconian fines for those who break the law.
We need to help people re-engage with food. It’s in the supermarkets’ interests for us become passive consumers of convenience foods.
Instead, we need to ensure ever child leaves school able to cook and aware of the importance of food.
For example, a simple idea, proposed by local diet pioneers, is that every primary school child learns to cook four soups and understand where the ingredients came from. Food must be a core subject in education.
However, above all else, we need someone to keep the multiple retailers in line. From broadcasting to the energy companies most important sectors have a regulator.
The supermarkets caused the current crisis by driving down the price of meat to levels where it was simply unsustainable. Now they must face the consequences. A levy on their gargantuan profits could fund a supermarket ombudsman who would input on planning applications and investigate any price manipulation and supplier exploitation.
For the first time, they’d be called to account.
In the meantime, the solution lies in our hands. If you want to know what you are eating this weekend, choose Scottish for quality and buy from people you can look in the eye.
Trust starts at home and at the moment, it goes no further.