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Counting the cost of cheap meat

September 2017 saw another supermarket food scandal as chicken processor 2 Sisters were caught on camera with poor hygiene practices and altering the slaughter date on products . The potential hazards from consumers eating contaminated, out-of-date meat are frightening. Parliament, the Food Standards Agency and the supermarkets have all launched their inquiries but we are all left wondering why do these food scandals keep happening?

After the horse meat scandal there was a trend in people buying locally. Local butchers reported a surge in demand. Somewhat inevitably though, we all quickly forget and start buying from our supermarkets again, driven by the convenience and low prices. The majority of supermarkets strive to drive down the cost of food and they have been very successful at it. The average household spends 11% of its total income on food and non-alcoholic drinks. This has remained constant since 2008 when it hit this lowest level since records began. Competition between the supermarkets continues to push this trend.

We have all become such bargain seekers but it is important to be aware of the effect that these low prices have on food and farming systems.

The 2 Sisters inquiry puts our food industry in an unflattering light. Aside from the reported complete disregard for food hygiene laws at 2 Sisters, the case also highlights other common practices that, whilst not illegal, are unsavoury and misleading. At 2 Sisters, chicken portions which had been returned by supermarket distribution centres, were reportedly repackaged and sent out again to rival grocers. Chickens were also apparently sourced from various suppliers in the UK and abroad and then sold under British sounding farm names, which suggests a false provenance and traceability.

Supermarkets deliver a uniform product to a mass market through centralised food processing factories. Such systems often have no traceability, can involve long stressful journeys for animals and add hundreds of food miles to our products. Our supermarkets have large buying power and farmers competing in this global marketplace have no control over the price they receive. At this time of year farmers get a fraction of the price consumers pay for lamb in the supermarkets.

So what can you do to ensure you are buying safe, healthy more sustainable meat?

A good local butcher should source local, distinctive products, and offer traceability back to the farm where it was reared. They should also be able to offer more unusual cuts that large retailers cannot offer in their quest to serve the mass-market.

Buying from your local farm offers farm to fork traceability and also cuts out the middleman so more money goes back into the farm and the communities in which they are based. You can often buy direct, online, or at a nearby farmers’ market.

Certified assurance schemes such as Red Tractor and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) work with producers at all stages of the food chain to ensure food complies with animal welfare, food safety, traceability and environmental protection standards. This includes farmers, packers and retailers. These certified assurance schemes, which farmers pay to belong to, involve regular checks by independent experts to make sure food is of a high standard. Look out for Red Tractor and Scotch Lamb, Scotch Beef and Scotch Pork badges.

By thinking about how we buy meat we can help create the food and farming system we want.

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