TAINTED food scandals are as old as the hills. In 1858, more than 200 were poisoned when a Bradford confectioner, known as Humbug Billy, accidentally mixed arsenic into his peppermint lozenges. More recently, mad cow disease led to the slaughter of 4.4m cattle. Poor quality has also never respected rank. Back in 1135, King Henry I died after an over-fondness for eels gave him a severe case of food poisoning.
All this puts the news that one of Tesco’s suppliers contaminated its burgers with horse meat (with no risk to health) into perspective. Breaches of food standards are relatively uncommon, and rarely deadly. According to the government’s 2012 food statistics, Britain has seen a downward trend in most dangerous food infections. Salmonella prevalence declined by 45 per cent between 2000 and 2010. E.coli contamination fell by 10 per cent over the same period. Regulation is strict, with 186,050 enforcement actions taken by food standards authorities in 2011.
That’s not to say we should shrug our shoulders and polish off our horse burgers. But a perverse theory has emerged. Some argue that this adulteration of quality was linked to the cheapness of the final product – that Tesco’s willingness to bear down on costs encouraged suppliers to make good meat go further. Some say we should make food more expensive.
The benefits of cheap food need restating. Despite price spikes since 2007, British food in 2012 was about 20 per cent cheaper than in 1980, in terms of cost relative to other goods. And this has coincided with the huge expansion of supermarkets. Historical data on who sells desserts (one way of measuring food market penetration) shows Tesco’s share increased from 7.2 per cent in 1971 to 29.7 per cent in 2012. And the result? Although policymakers rightly worry about poor diets, the Department of Health’s definition of food poverty is no longer concerned with starvation.
Cheapness has also come with choice. Kiwis crowd with kumquats on all but the most remote supermarket shelves. And brutal competition between supermarkets is leading the industry to become even more efficient. Total factor productivity across Britain’s food chain, excluding agriculture, has been rising since 2002.
But is cheap food making us unhealthier? Are we eating like kings on a pauper’s budget? Yes, obesity levels are rising. But, according to the National Food Survey, while food has become cheaper, the average daily calorie intake has declined from 2,630 in 1960 to 2,009 in 2011. Daily consumption of saturated fats fell from 46.8g in 1980 to 29.2g in 2000. The amount of salt in our diets has also dropped. Although the quality of some foods has deteriorated, the old canard that supermarkets are ruining our diets for profit is false.
In the wake of this scandal, more shoppers may opt for expensive “ethical” products – now just 6.5 per cent of sales. But at least they have a choice. Cheap food has dragged millions out of poverty globally. And while errors by one supplier in the food chain may give us reason to pause, it shouldn’t shake our fundamental trust in the power of supermarkets for good.
Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M.