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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 February 2013

Food adulteration - government cutbacks and capitalist profits

Dave Ingham
Meat being prepared at Smithfield market, photo Paul Mattsson

Meat being prepared at Smithfield market, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal it's clear that food manufacturers, supermarkets and government ministers cannot be trusted to provide and ensure healthy food.

Ten companies dominate global food production and the drive for profit comes first. Big business politicians are generally obedient to the demands of the super-rich manufacturers.

Profits soar while health problems mount up and industry employees suffer attacks on working conditions.

Low pay denies millions from buying high-quality food. And unsustainable agribusiness production is wrecking the environment.

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), horsemeat has been found in one in every 75 beef products available in the high street, as well as in cottage pies sent to 47 schools in Lancashire and ready meals sent to hospitals in Northern Ireland.

The FSA was established in 2000 as a watchdog on food safety and nutrition, in the wake of the BSE scandal a few years earlier.

Part of its remit is to monitor the three million cattle, 13 million pigs, 19 million sheep and lambs, 70 million fish and 800 million birds that are slaughtered every year in the UK for human consumption.

Food writer, Joanna Blythman accused the FSA of having an "unduly cosy relationship with the food companies, bio-tech companies and large retailers".

As if to demonstrate this the former CEO of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco's Global Technical Director.

Staff numbers at the FSA have dropped by 42% from 2007-2010 reducing meat inspection costs by 13.5 million, and since then a further 13% of staff have been axed. Its budget has been cut by 44 million since 2010.

On her blog Blythman comments further: "Now, providing a food-processing company has a paper trail that appears to demonstrate 'due diligence' and conforms to 'quality assurance' schemes, supermarkets take its products on trust.

"So unless a whistleblower tips off the authorities or obvious casualties line up in the form of poisoned consumers, any funny business in the factory goes undetected."

Moreover, council environmental health teams, which are responsible for inspections of food retailing, fast food and restaurants, have also been squeezed.

According to Environmental Health News spending has been cut by "32% since 2009, outstripping cuts in most other service areas."

Most workplaces can be expected to be inspected somewhere from every six months to every two years.

Having worked in a supermarket with fresh meat prior to these cutbacks, then I can honestly say the thoroughness of the inspections were less than exemplary.

In the one inspection I witnessed in my two years working full-time at a supermarket they obsessed over whether our chiller was actually as cool as it was supposed to be rather than the flagrant hygiene issues just metres away from them. My store manager was forever pulling me away from hygienic cleaning duties.

Profit margins

Some commentators have suggested that horsemeat is being used as a replacement for Desinewed Meat (DSM), which itself was a replacement for Mechanically Recovered Meat (MRM), also known as 'pink slime'. This is produced by removing residual meat from animal bones by high pressure water.

The difference between the two is that DSM is removed at lower pressure retaining some structure, but both are a far cheaper source of 'meat' than actual cuts.

DSM was reclassified as a form of MRM around a year ago which means it can no longer be listed as meat.

It's quite telling that a former FSA specialist, Dr Mark Woolfe, was quoted in the press saying that DSM "was a perfectly good ingredient for value products".

In essence he is saying that low-quality food is adequate for those on low incomes who have to buy value products.

He then goes on to justify companies using horsemeat as they searched for similarly priced 'meat' to protect their profit margins.

Flawed system

Horses are also slaughtered in Britain, some of which are for domestic human consumption, but mainly for export.

The UK government's system of passports for horses is meant to identify what drugs they have been treated with over their lifetime, including the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone (Bute).

In high enough concentrations Bute can have severe side effects in humans. However, the passport system is deeply flawed.

7,000 of these passports were issued by the Spotted Horse and Pony Organisation after it had its license to do so withdrawn in 2008 by Defra, a government department. This is just one of over 75 organisations which can issue such licenses.

According to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals around 70,000 horses are untraceable in both the North and South of Ireland.

With the suspected involvement of criminal gangs, horses worth as little as 10 (due to drug treatment) are being sold to slaughterhouses with false passports and identification microchips for up to 400.

Although it is highly unlikely that sufficient levels of Bute are present in the horsemeat to seriously affect humans, a bigger potential danger is contamination by bacteria such as salmonella from 'back-street' abattoirs.

As long as capitalist companies, driven by the profit motive, produce our food then that profit will always come first, before quality and our health and safety.

A lax regulatory system and cutbacks in inspections, means that the horsemeat scandal and previous food scares clearly won't be the last.

Only a nationalised food industry, under democratic workers' control, alongside taking other key sections in the economy into public control would allow resources to be devoted to making sure our food is safe and correctly labelled.

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In The Socialist 20 February 2013:


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Food adulteration - government cutbacks and capitalist profits

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Bosses take tax liberties

Action needed to end caste discrimination

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Workplace news in brief


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Caerphilly says 'bring back our A&E!'

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London NHS

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Nepal: The forgotten revolution

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