The recent horsemeat scandal has encouraged us all to think more deeply about the origins of the food we buy. Of particular relevance is the complexity of the food supply chain. The food supply chain refers to the various stages that food crops and food products pass through on their way from the land to the consumer. If I buy eggs from someone in my village who keeps chickens, the food chain is simple and transparent. But if I buy a ready meal from a supermarket then the food chain is very complex and difficult to unravel. According to NFU President, Peter Kendall, “the longer a supply chain and the more borders it crosses, the less traceable our food is and the more the chain is open to negligence at best, fraud and criminal activity at worst.”
At the height of the scandal, burger chain McDonald’s were confident that its burgers were free of horsemeat because they had invested in supply chains that are relatively simple and transparent and rely on close contact with the British and Irish farmers who produce all of its beef. Only 10% of its chickens come from the UK and Ireland, but it claims to use free-range British eggs, British pork and milk, and burgers made with 100% British and Irish beef.
By contrast, many supermarkets rely on factories producing tens of thousands of tonnes of ready meals. And these factories buy their meat from contractors who buy from traders who may have subcontracted their order to another trader, making the chain of supply very hard to follow. Since the horsemeat scandal, supermarkets have been seeking to follow McDonald’s example, with Tesco announcing plans to source more meat from the UK and Ireland, including all of its fresh chicken, and to simplify its supply chain. But the supermarket system favours big suppliers and distribution systems that move food over large distances and generate considerable waste.
The answer may be to rely more on small local stores with a shorter distance from field to plate, and decentralised distribution that doesn’t rely on a few giant warehouses. But national supermarket chains currently dominate grocery spending, accounting for 77% of all main shopping trips. And this weekly supermarket shop has displaced food from market places and town centres, with the number of independent food stores such as butchers and greengrocers falling from 120,000 in the 1950s to only 18,000 in the late 2000s, a loss of a staggering 85%.