The horse-meat scandal. Events move on.

Today has seen two eventualities of interest.

At an Open Board Meeting of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) held at its offices within Aviation House, London, Prof. Pat Troop reported her verbal preview of her findings to the board. Pat Troop was appointed by the FSA to conduct a review of the FSAs responses and her report made for interesting listening.  Prof Troop will be refining her report which when ready will be submitted in writing, and I hope the document will be made publicly available.

Professor Troop is an experienced and seasoned campaigner where major incident planning and incident management is concerned. She largely praised the team of people within the FSA that had to respond to the horse-meat affair for the level of resourcefulness and commitment that they showed. At times it was almost a camp-bed mentality that prevailed around the clock in what became a major node and nerve-centre in a collective response involving a number of authorities. However she identified some significant weaknesses in the levels of advanced preparation and planning and she took those forwards in a positive way acknowledging lessons could be learned and taken forwards.

For the most part Professor Troops review was independent in that she was promised unrestricted access to documents and people, and she made the point in her own way that she enjoyed these freedoms, but it was also a relatively insular look at the affair as it focussed mainly at what the FSA did well along with what it could have done better. This oughtn’t disappoint the board too much for she has done precisely what she was appointed to do, and goodness, members of the board were spell-bound. Seeing  FSA Chair Geoff Rooker had me think of the term ‘flabbergasted’, for he was evidently amazed by the extent of her review, and the depth of insight that came through.

There was discrete reference to the 2010 changes which had the FSA lose some of its former remit chopped off with an axe of political intervention, and the realignment of remit had some people at the FSA confused about their role in taking up with the standard in the light of the emergent scandal.

Form an operational perspective I do not think anyone could have rivalled Professor Troops review, for it was class, but I did feel some disappointment.

We, and the FSA were lucky with horse-meat. It was and remains a serious food scandal that resulted in more offence than it did actual harm. It was a major authenticity incident and breach of consumer confidence that turned out to be relatively low in conventional risks.

Of course, what horse-meat points to is that some things, such as trace-ability and detection, are not working nearly so well as they should, and it points to the modern, convoluted, cross border and at times intercontinental food chain as something that gives rise to as many complications and risks as it does benefits. The authorities of many countries are ill-prepared to match this level of complexity. The review, as was presented to the board in this spoken presentation disappointed, I think, for not exploring wider contexts so well as it could. Then in addition to this shortcoming Pat Troop showed no willingness to venture towards discussion of cause and effect.

Now I think the prime cause of the scandal, right there at the point where butchered horse is substituted for butchered beef is undoubtedly criminal, and criminal investigations are advancing, but I also think criminality and the failure to detect are facets that reside in a wider socio-economic context. For one it is increasingly difficult to earn a decent living by honest means alone, and conditions in some countries are worse than in others. For another the people contracted to supply the multiples are now operating under considerable financial duress. They have to supply the big supermarkets upon terms that barely cover their operating costs.

At home in the UK this scenario describes the state off affairs in relation to bread, to eggs, and to milk. One dairy, Robert Wiseman Dairies, found a fall in the price of bulk cream for export left it with a whopping hole in its business plan and it was forced to seek a buyer. It found one, just in the nick of time, in Muller. Dairy farmers in the UK are still campaigning for a fairer deal.

I do not see the business of making pies, pasties, and burgers as any different. There is and has been a relentless quest for value. It was the lower priced products that were contaminated. What I am indicating here is the presence of a vicious circle. The multiples feel they have to compete on value, because a significant number of consumers cannot survive without it. Small wonder the multiples pin down suppliers and processors to meagre contracts and margins, and no wonder these suppliers pin down their suppliers to meagre terms too. Horse-meat informs me aspects of food supply are depressingly sustainable. The multiples don’t have sustainable associations with their suppliers, because they insist upon supply at a price that scarcely covers the costs. They don’t have particularly sustainable relationships with groups of their customers either, because the ‘system’ is fast losing the ability to supply great swathes of people with food of satisfactory quality and integrity at a price they can afford or perceive they can afford. And the multiples employ a lot of people, yes, but many on part-time hours and paid not much above the minimum wage, which is depressingly viewed as a living wage. The incomes of the lower paid workers have been trending down, in real terms, and people find themselves trending to the bread-line. The process has a term, and that term is wage repression. Wage repression is extensive presently, and the supermarkets have been culpable in contributing to the trend.

Wage repression, more than anything, contributes to the imperative that is the relentless quest for value.  If you are new to this description conceiving what is that causes wage repression will be difficult for you. There are always down ward forces upon wages because there is a general oversupply of labour, even when employment levels are high (sounds odd, I know) and wages are seen as costs in production, but more that anything else wage repression is driven by decline in money supply. Periodically the supply of new money cannot be sustained in keeping with the expectations and demands for profits and gains. In effect money becomes ‘scarce’, and I say it trends from being simply generally scarce to becoming especially scarce. Providing a person has the rightful grasp of the attributes of money and the well-spring of supply predicting the periodic scarcity of money is a simple run of reasoning. But the key thing to grasp is that when people are trending towards and even below the bread-line it is not so much a costs issue as an earnings issue.

Money, and what I really mean in this is that fiat currency as a principal kind of money adopted by choice, periodically plots its own downfall, and its great undoing is that ceases to provision the most needy of people with the food they need. We don’t have to do away with money as we know it, but it would be prudent to wonder if alternate types of money would come in handy when the most familiar kind of money, fiat currency, ceases to feed people. That’s what I’m largely about, I’m an advocate for companion currencies. These are money systems of alternate design and attributes that can be used in conjunction with regular money. Companion currencies are nothing new and nothing radical, but they escape our notice. What’s needed is more in the way of open debate and discussion, and definitely more in the way of promotion.

The electorate and the elected seem largely unaware of the dangers lurking ahead, and I’m not about to describe them here save that the last time money seemed this scarce was in the 1930s, and it was felt most intensely in Germany.

Through their loyalty schemes and rewards vouchers the multiples already embrace alternative or companion currencies, but not of the kind of design that could make a difference. Frankly, the only way the supermarkets can restore increasingly sustainable relationship with suppliers, with consumers, and with the people who work for them is if they adopt increased willingness to embrace companion currencies conforming to the right designs. If the multiples can be made to perceive this then the occasional horse-burger will have been a small price to pay. In a letter to Pat Troop I said as much.

The supermarkets are not to blame, simply because in a way we all are, but the supermarkets are still intent upon making profits in the way they have become accustomed to in the past, yet in the present the supply of new money needed to confer the added value that would represent everybody’s gains is no longer coming to market with the gusto it did before. Why? Well, the decline in real earnings and disposable income of the low paid and even ranging into the middle classes simply means would be lenders are no longer lending as willingly as they did and would be borrowers are not showing anything like the former interest in borrowing. If anything escaped your notice it is that lending is the process that accounts for the well-spring of new money.

Wealth and indebtedness grow at the same rate, but they attach themselves to entirely different groups of people. If you thought money would make you rich you may be right. But the great trick attached to fiat currency is that it makes only a minority of people richer, whilst it makes the majority of people poorer, yet does so in ways they tend not to notice until the supply contacts markedly after a banking crisis and shortly prior to the depression.

The second event?

Owen Paterson, the secretary of state attached to DEFRA, has today announced the appointment of Professor Chris Elliott, of Queens University Belfast, who is to head the review of the horse-meat affair commission by the government. The Troop review is expected to feed into this Elliott review, and the Elliott review may join hands with other nations reviews to become pan-European in scope. It is expected the Elliott review may take up to 12 months to complete. If he’s not careful events may overtake him.

We could cross fingers and hope for the best, or we could willingly welcome  more open debate about the relief companion currencies could bring. In sensing what events may lie on the horizon I’m not sure crossed fingers would contribute much to contingency.

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