Retailers must take more responsibility
behind the US because supermarkets here don't care enough and
manufacturers don't have enough money to implement adequate
systems. As a result the European food industry needs to think
about some form of financial redistribution, writes Anthony
"Retailers in Europe are a funny bunch," SFT chief operating officer Andrew Marshall told FoodProductionDaily.com. "Their public face is that they do everything for their customers. But guess what the average supermarket specification for chicken breast bone contamination is.
"You'd think it would be low, about 1 bone, say in every 100 kilos. But I have completely independent evidence that in a particular European market, it is not one bone in 100 kilos - it is more like 100 bones in 100 kilos."
Marshall says that the meat was bought by a third party and tested by teh UK's Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA).
"These supermarkets have been informed about this, they have been told that this information would not be shared with the press and guess what their reaction was? Hostility."
Marshall sounds resigned to this fact. His company, Spectral Fusion Technologies (SFT), specialises in x-ray equipment for the meat industry, and develops machines at the top end of the range - a typical BoneScan system capable of detecting bones smaller than a millimetre will cost anything between $350,000 to $500,000. Dozens of systems have been installed in North America - the company has never had to make a recall - but only one system is presently installed in Europe.
As a result, Marshall has come to the conclusion that food safety as an end in itself is simply not a major driver of the food industry in Europe. The only things that currently push food safety, he says, are the 'yuck factor' - finding a cockroach in your soup or something equally hideous - and the fast food industry.
"These are the only people who are pushing hard on food safety at this level," said Marshall. "If I buy a chicken fillet from Sainsbury and find a bone in it, I'll throw it away and think no more about it. But if my daughter finds a bone in a chicken nugget, after biting into it and hurting herself, you're going to cause a fuss, aren't you?
"The thing about fast food is that there is no knife and fork in between you and the dining experience. The only detection system you have is your mouth. Therefore, it is the fast food industry that is pushing for greater food safety, not supermarkets, and this explains why the US is so far ahead of Europe in this respect."
Marshall has a solution. He believes that if retailers were prepared to work for slightly reduced margins, then billions would be released to create safer products overnight. Farmers, he says, would be able to raise safer livestock, manufacturers would not have to take shortcuts and everybody would be better off, including the consumer.
"If they paid a fairer price in the first place, then they would get a better product," he said. "Due diligence is about doing something properly. It is not just writing a specification on a packet of chicken saying that there are no bones in this thing."
However, Marshall says that things are getting worse.
"I recently saw an internal memo that some senior buyers for supermarkets had done as part of an exercise," he said. "It said that if three out often five major multiples (in the UK) got together to delist any one brand name, they could do so. In other words, they could break that brand. Over 80 per cent of food sold in the UK is done through the big five [now the big four following Safeway's takeover by Morrisons]. It is essentially a monopolistic situation."
The UK, says Marshall, has gone further than other European countries in this respect, but is certainly not alone. He sees this as a long-term trend, with few swimming against the tide.
"Most of our business will continue to be in the US," he said. "We do deal with a few enlightened souls in Europe - it is always gratifying to deal with people who have vision - but they sadly are the exception to the rule."