Horseplay in Food Supply Chains by Colin Cram

Posted on February 21, 2013


The week started off badly. According to a report in the ‘Times’ newspaper, I was born in the least romantic town in the UK, Scunthorpe. I guess I am fortunate to be alive.

However, my gloom was lifted by a certain amount of horseplay. Firstly, the skeleton of King Richard III was pronounced genuine. He was killed in battle in 1485 and is reputed by William Shakespeare to have been unseated from his horse, shouting ‘My horse, my horse, my Kingdom for a horse’, before being cut down by enemy troops. However, the truth was slightly less dramatic, but with the same ending in that he was surrounded whilst still on horseback and killed by 10 blows with swords and other weapons.

Perhaps the most significant result of his death was that it ushered in the Tudor Dynasty under Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, famous for his wives, but who broke with the Roman Catholic Church, so England became protestant. Under his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, England started to show signs of increased prosperity and power, which ultimately led to colonies in America, the British Empire and English becoming the main international language.

PI Tesco Horse Meat

Whilst writing this article, a UK government minister is holding a ‘horse meat summit’ with the food industry. This is something I never dreamt would happen in my lifetime. The problem is that the British do not like horsemeat. Therefore it has come as a shock to many that they have been eating horsemeat since at least last summer, in beef burgers, lasagnes and other processed foods. This started 2 weeks ago when the Irish authorities discovered that burgers produced by several food processing companies contained some horse meat. These companies supply UK retailers. One of the UK supermarkets discovered that its cheapest burgers contained 30% horse meat. Lasagnes sold by one company contained up to 100% horsemeat. Even Burger King may not have been immune.

There was a similar problem with prison food in that pork was found in halal meat served to Moslem prisoners.

There are suggestions that the food processing industry has been the victim of a major fraud. The food processing companies bought meat from Eastern Europe, possibly Poland, but the trail may go back to Romania. The supermarket company, Tesco, suspended purchases from several of its food processor suppliers on the grounds that they had bought meat from unauthorised suppliers. However, it is not clear that the problem would not have existed had they purchased from authorised suppliers of meat.

Does any of this matter? There was no health risk. People didn’t realise they were eating horse meat. However, this should be a wake-up call. It seems that the food industry was the victim of a major fraud. The chief executive of a large supermarket chain in the UK, Morrison’s, said that the problem is that supply chains are too long and complex. There may be no harm done this time, but this illustrates the vulnerability of long supply chains. Adulteration of less benign produce could have far more damaging impact in future. It has been suggested that this fraud existed due to supermarkets and food manufacturers squeezing their suppliers’ costs. However, my guess is that the frauds existed because complicated supply chains provided the opportunity for someone to make alot of money.

The lesson for procurement personnel is that for items critical to the business in which they work, supply chains must be tightly managed, otherwise someone may see an opportunity to make some quick bucks. 15 years ago, one of the UK’s computer manufacturers, Amstrad,  almost went out of business due to faulty ‘chips’ sourced from the Far East.

©Colin M Cram FCIPS


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