The UK’s National Pig Association (NPA) has warned “the foundations for the next food scandal” are being laid by retailers flouting promises made after the horsemeat crisis.
After horsemeat was found in beef products earlier this year, UK retailers committed to shortening their supply chains and buying more British products. But NPA claims supermarkets are switching back from British pork to cheaper imports.
Dr Zoe Davies, NPA general manager, said: “The biggest commitment they made was that they wanted to supply more British, have a good look at their supply chains, and cut out unnecessary stages.”
But “they realised it wasn’t sustainable for them to make the margins they expected to make. So they went back to their European suppliers,” she said.
NPA: “supermarket moved 10,000 swine”
Davies claimed NPA had met with an unnamed retailer two months ago “because we’d been alerted that they were about to shift their entire standard label bacon supply from British over to EU, which for us equated to about 10,000 pigs a week.
“They quite openly said, we’re losing market share, we’ve got to make margin.
“From our point of view, it’s disappointing when a retailer who previously has been very pro-British and outwardly still remains so, does a complete U-turn on the volume lines, i.e. bacon.”
Retailers hit back
This warning was disputed by Amanda Callaghan, director of corporate affairs for the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Callaghan said NPA was “conflating simplification of the supply chain and sourcing in the UK. Just because you’re sourcing in the UK doesn’t mean you’re simplifying the supply chain.”
When asked by FoodQualityNews.com whether shorter supply chains are always safer, Davies answered, “certainly for UK pork, because 90 per cent of the pork that’s produced in the UK is assured. They have a quarterly vet visit and an annual audit by an independent inspector.
“We can trace the meat that comes from the farms straight through to the product in the pack, so the traceability of the product supply chains is much clearer. If there’s any kind of issue, we can identify it immediately and the problems can be sorted.”
What retailers “should have done” instead of increasing European imports, according to Davies, was expand British herds by putting in direct, long-term contracts with producers.
She praised some retailers, including Waitrose and Tesco, for trying this model, but said efforts so far had been small-scale.
Consumers in charge
Both NPA and BRC agreed the issue was driven by consumer wants.
“Consumers have got to lead the way in what we put on the shelves,” said Callaghan. Meanwhile, NPA is promoting “Britishness” to consumers using the Red Tractor quality mark and national banner campaigns encouraging the UK to “Buy British” (jointly sponsored with the National Farmers’ Union).
The issue comes down to consumer confidence, said Davies. “If people lose confidence in pork [because of another scare] it doesn’t matter where it comes from – it will disadvantage Britain, it will disadvantage Europeans.”
Speaking for retailers, Callaghan said NPA’s comments were not helpful to the meat industry.
“There is a very strong consensus across experts in food safety, academics and government officials across the board, that the UK is a real leader in terms of food safety.
“And although there was a lot of media coverage of the horsemeat scandal, we’ve got to remember that out of 1000 products, only six were found to have traces of horsemeat. And that was based on fraud, not on lax standards.
“So scare-mongering about what could happen just because products come from overseas is unhelpful at the very least.”