Gluttony for profit to blame for food scandals

South China Morning Post
Insight & Opinion

by Karim Rushdy

Karim Rushdy says whether in China or the West, food scandals are products of a sick industrial system that seeks profits above all else

Up until two weeks ago, if you asked a viewer of the BBC or CNN to name the first country that comes to mind when they thought about food scandals, "China" would have very likely been the response.

Stories of tainted food products in the world's most populous nation have been seized upon by the Western media. But what most people in the West are not aware of is how much attention these stories garner within China, both in state-run media and through a growing public discourse online. Europeans in particular have been quick to forget mad cow disease, the fundamental cause of which was a cost-driven food supply chain that fed cattle contaminated matter.

Baby formula tainted with melamine and noodles flavoured with ink and paraffin are of course severe breaches of food safety laws that have to be dealt with in the strictest terms. But as the recent horsemeat scandal shows, the West is not immune to food crises.

To cite a weak rule of law or inadequate food safety measures as the underlying cause is to oversimplify a complex issue.

The UN expects the world population to reach around 15 billion by 2100 before beginning to decline. That means a significant increase in food production will be required, which raises difficult questions about the primary role of the food industry, namely, does it exist to feed people the food they need to sustain themselves, or to maximise profits and shareholder value? Are the two mutually exclusive?

Such questions need to be debated at the highest levels if we are to rein in an industry that spends more than US$10 billion annually marketing to children and youth in the US alone.

The expected rise in population, coupled with the promotion by the food industry of relentless consumption at all costs, is a recipe for disaster. This consumption-led model only works for the food industry if resources are underpriced and costs externalised. Given that many of the inputs required are finite resources, this model is utterly unsustainable.

In the interest of profits, the world's leading agribusiness, food retailing and supermarket companies put enormous pressure on suppliers to reduce costs - thus beef is replaced by horsemeat and, as a recent report by advocacy group Oceana reveals, one third of fish sold in restaurants and supermarkets in the US is a mislabelled cheaper product.

What is required is global recognition of the scale of the problem, leading to tougher regulations and serious efforts to reduce the amount of meat and fish being consumed per capita by the affluent classes.

A reduction in meat consumption would not only alleviate pressure on the supply chain; it would also have significant financial and environmental benefits.

Until the promotion of relentless consumption that relies on the underpricing of resources and externalisation of costs is addressed, we should expect an increase in the type and frequency of national and international food scandals that, until recently, most Europeans and Americans thought could only happen in China.