Monday, February 18, 2013

Horsemeat scandal: multiple agendas

We've had over a week now of high-intensity publicity and although it is abating, it is very far from over. We've had a wonderfully mad piece from Will Hutton and a classic anti-supermarket piece inThe Observer, balanced by a frankly stupid comment by Malcolm Walker, CEO of Iceland, and a thoroughly crass intervention from the Waitrose boss.

Everyone, it seems, has an agenda, using the events as a launch platform for their own ideas and prejudices. Even Rod Liddle joins the throng, with a piece vying in madness with Will Hutton.

Liddle takes exception to ministers and the UK food industry distancing themselves from blame. He attempts to parody their positions, having them tell us: "it's not Britain, with its rigorous food hygiene standards, democracy and proper drains — it's the wogs, of course, beginning at Calais". And then, says Liddle, "they distanced themselves a second time by suggesting that not only was it foreigners, but 'criminal' foreigners. Gangs, mafioso and the like, some massive organised crime being perpetrated against the British people.

Instead of getting himself worked up about shadowy unnamed foreign criminals, he rants, the environment secretary Owen Paterson "should be pointing the finger at the supermarkets and the food companies here". Otherwise, he hints darkly, "we might begin to think that the government has not entirely got our interests at heart and is concerned only with saving the reputations, and thus future income, of the likes of Tesco". 

This is "Liddle Englander" writ large. Yet, even as he prattled, the French government was revealing it had "overwhelming evidence" of a major criminal fraud perpetrated by Spanghero, while The Observer- no friend of ministers or the supermarkets - was reporting that key intermediaries involved in the horsemeat trade appeared to be using a similar secretive network of companies to the convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

The two things that most media commentators seem unenthusiastic about confronting, it seems, are EU involvement and the large scale fraud pervading the food industry. On the EU front, Owen Paterson is still a lone voice amongst senior politicians in insisting that food law is an EU competence. He is also largely alone in stating that too much of the EU system is paper-based. It relies on trust; there is not enough testing.

Particularly interesting here is the silence of the supermarkets. They have the most to lose from inadequate control systems, and also from food fraud on the scale experienced, yet they are keeping quiet about these issues. We are told they are battling to regain trust, but they are not declaring their real agendas. And, while people may not understand what they are playing at, most can intuitively sense that the whole truth is not being told.

Thus, although some of the heat has come out of the issue, there has not yet been closure, and the media is still mischief-making. There is, I fear, more to come.