When a well-respected name such as Findus gets embroiled in a scandal over adulterated products it becomes clear just how deep are the issues affecting the entire convenience food sector. Politicians are now calling for clearer and more honest labelling on foods, particularly processed products such as ready meals.
But that step alone is going to offer no protection to consumers against commercial interests which are determined to inflate their profits by downgrading ingredients.
And we've heard all this before. We heard it from Nick Brown, during his short and colourful tenure as Minister of Agriculture. He was going to sort out the labelling issue once and for all, he told farmers. He was going, in particular, to end the so-called flag of convenience labelling where foodstuffs were legally entitled to assume the nationality of the country of last process – in that if a Thai chicken imported through France was cut up and covered with a sauce at a food factory in Birmingham it miraculously became British. In the end Nick Brown did nothing. Neither, despite similar promises, did any of his successors up to and including Jim Paice. Every time they spoke of introducing tougher controls there was an immediate chorus of protest from the retailers. It would be difficult to gather all the precise information necessary about all ingredients. There wouldn't be room to display it all on the labels. The print would have to be so small people wouldn't be able to read it. And so on. Repeated failure to close up the alarming gaps in food labelling is merely another black mark to add to the long list already placed against Defra's name.
Yet companies like Tesco have always been very good at wielding the whip when dealing with the people supplying them, as I know from personal experience.
When a colleague and I were running the Triple S beef operation and the Abbey Vale bakery where we turned out processed foods, we had Tesco's inspectors on our backs all the time. The company put its own staff into the cutting plant and we had to pay for them to be there. And they were ruthless.
On the other side of the coin every farmer will remember the way the major retailers ran away from British beef when BSE hit. You couldn't see them for dust. And it was only when we had introduced really comprehensive traceability measures for cattle that they were persuaded to come back.
With cattle passports and all animal movements now so closely recorded and monitored the supermarkets can have no grounds to criticise farmers. The British livestock sector is now pretty much as tightly controlled as it is possible to be. But the origins of the current scandal lie in the murky depths of the meat processing sector which has long been the home to some very unsavoury practices.
What is most startling about the current situation is the way responsibility for the foisting of horse meat on consumers is being passed from company back to company like a rugby ball being passed along a well-drilled forward line. No-one in the retail sector, apparently, knew what was going on. Perhaps, more correctly, they didn't want to ask.
Surely someone should have questioned how it's possible to sell eight burgers for a pound? You might have though a responsible retailer – rather than one with eyes fixed unwaveringly on the profit line – might have stopped and considered what they could be made of – and checked. Shouldn't such a price structure have woken up the somnolent Food Standards Agency and alerted it to the fact that all might not be as it seems on the label? Apparently not. Neither did the tired, time-expired NFU have the nous to get involved and to question whether this wasn't another case of food being sold at less than the cost of production – and perhaps order its own analysis on the ingredients.
No-one bothered. They were all content to allow supermarkets to carry on peddling bargain-price meat products which all helped to undermine the profitability of independent butchers.
The ones who used proper ingredients. The ones who tried to explain to their customers why that made them more expensive than supermarkets. The ones who, in thousands of cases, had to give up the unequal struggle and go out of business.
The horsemeat scandal is just one facet of the disgraceful practice of selling cheap, adulterated and third-rate processed foods, an activity which has done goodness knows what damage to the nation's health and has forced scores of decent, honest and respectable meat traders out of business. That is why the government's responseshould be nothing less than a full public inquiry with the widest possible brief.