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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.

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