This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The supermarket as ‘client’ is king.

I was motivated to blog on this issue after attending a stimulating round table discussion on the horse meat scandal - 'What's the Beef?' - in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University (CPLAN) yesterday. Chaired by the Director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute Terry Marsden, a panel of experts examined the upsurge in sales at local farmers and butchers and tried to shed some light on questions of responsibility for the scandal. Whilst the panel recognized that consumers are not entirely blameless, some of the participants - although stating that they were not acting as apologists for supermarkets - suggested that supermarkets could not be held responsible for the origins and quality of the meat they sell. Supermarkets, it appears, lack any control and/or power over supply chain actors below them.

Over recent years, the power of the 'big four' UK supermarkets - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison's - over supply chain actors has expanded rapidly and there are lots of reasons why this view is questionable. 'Just in time' strategies are now widely used by the 'big four' to connect different parts of the production process in order to deliver products to them at very short notice. Our own research in CPLAN has highlighted the pressure farmers are placed under by these developments. During the early days of the economic downtown, chicken farmers in our sample were asked by supermarkets to change from growing outdoor (high welfare) free range chicken breeds - which they had invested heavily in to produce over many years - to indoor (low welfare) breeds at very short notice; this was extremely controversial and led many farmers to consider their future as free range chicken farmers.

Further up the supply chain, food processing companies are placed under similar pressure to deliver products to supermarkets at very short notice. British workers view work in the food/ meat processing sector as ‘dirty, dangerous and difficult’ and many positions are filled by migrant workers. Recent work by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that the ability of meat processing firms to offer migrant workers permanent employment is directly is affected by unpredictable fluctuations and short delivery schedules set by supermarkets. This situation is compounded by the extreme working conditions experienced by migrant workers, including verbal/physical abuse and the poor treatment of pregnant women. As EHRC stated: 'The supermarket as... ‘client’ is king.'

At a time when Government will not regulate or invest in the food industry, it is perhaps not surprising that supermarkets are outlining plans to make supply chain ethics more transparent; how transparent remains to be seen.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Civilizing the market for welfare friendly products in Europe? The techno-ethics of the Welfare Quality assessment,

Geoforum 48 (2013) 63–72, Miele, M. and Lever, J.

Abstract: Greater attention to and anxiety about farm animal welfare emerged at the end of the 20th century, as worries over food safety and food quality (connected to the BSE, FMD and other epidemics) pushed farm animal welfare into public discourse and political debate. The creation of a transparent market for animal friendly produced foods is one of the strategies currently envisaged by the EU to meet the widely recognized challenge of promoting animal welfare without threatening the economic competitiveness of the animal farming industry in Europe (EU Animal Welfare Strategy, 2012–2015). 
          This paper aims to contribute to debates on STS and food standards within the geographies of food literature. Empirically it draws on research carried out during the EU funded project Welfare Quality, which has proposed a protocol based on scientifically validated measures for assessing the welfare of chickens, pigs and cattle both on-farm and at slaughterhouse, in order to making ‘accountable’ the (ubiquitous) welfare claims’ on animal products. While these developments have the potential to improve the life of farm animals by rewarding the most ‘animal friendly’ producers on the market, we address the matters of concern that arise from the implementation of the protocol by looking at a case study of UK based free-range chicken producers. Drawing on STS insights and especially on the work of Callon et al., (2002, 2009) we look at the controversies that emerge about the ‘welfare friendliness’ qualification of free-range chickens and we discuss the role and partial achievements of this market for civilizing animal welfare politics and science. 

Key Words: Civilizing markets, STS, Geographies of food consumption, Animal welfare standards

Tuesday 7 May 2013

The food processing industry & the reality of migration

As the next general election draws ever closer and the main political parties jostle for the popular vote, migration has once more emerged as a contentious political issue in the UK.

Migration expanded rapidly in the aftermath of EU expansion in 2004 and 2007, with some sectors of the economy drawing on increasing numbers of migrant workers to alleviate labour shortages. This is nothing new. The food processing industry has drawn on itinerant/ migrant labour for centuries and recent trends are more an intensification of old trends than the emergence of new ones. Temporary hard to fill vacancies are a central feature of food production and migrant workers have always been moored firmly to the bottom of the UK labour market.

Over recent decades, however, as power has drained away from food producers towards retail corporations and large supermarket chains, there has been a corresponding increase in the split between desirable and undesirable/ hard to fill jobs. Just as food production has intensified, so too have employment practices, with much work in the sector now paying less under worse conditions than it did previously. As food producers have been squeezed on price by the ‘big four’ supermarkets, and consumers have demanded ever more sophisticated, low-priced food, workers have in turn been squeezed by new management techniques and surveillance strategies that have made jobs in the sector less appealing.

Not surprisingly, the sector remains one of the most migrant dense in the UK. While domestic workers view work in the sector as ‘dirty, dangerous and demanding’, migrant workers take up opportunities to earn relatively well and improve their status in their home country. Even at a time of high unemployment, many recruitment agencies and employers continue to prioritise migrant workers over and above unemployed British workers because of differences in attitude. Despite attempts by the Coalition Government to relocate the long term unemployed to areas where there are jobs, it appears that the food processing sector will remain dependent on migrant workers for some time to come.