Horse meat and the simple lesson that applies to all companies

The horse meat stories keep coming.

The jokes are funny. The reality is not.

And before I get those posts about eating horse …

It isn’t about the horse meat, it is about lying, a failure of any quality control and simple greed.

This whole debacle though provide an interesting reminder that is relevant for all companies.

Ethics matter.

Going back to the horse meat issue.

Here is my summary of the situation we are in:

  • Cheap meat producers – you got caught
  • Food producers – “ask no questions, tell no lies” – is not a defence
  • Supermarkets – you got what you deserved, continually demanding lower prices from suppliers forces quality cuts
  • Government – you failed us and are continuing to do so
  • Shoppers – what did you think was in the food?

Key point: The food industry got caught. Simple as that.

This whole situation was completely predictable and completely avoidable. The real issue though is not crap food, or even the contribution to obesity, but the failure of any form of ethics in so many food companies and supermarkets. Perhaps the biggest failure of ethics though is in the complete failure of government to do anything about this – before, during and after the problems. This gives some explanation as to why supermarkets are full of crap food and our nation is now the fattest in Europe.

Let me be clear …

I have no sympathy for ANY food producer who produced this crap food. I have no sympathy for any supermarket who demanded the lowest possible price without caring about what they were selling. I have no sympathy for any producer who reengineered their value chain to minimise costs without caring about where the source was or what the quality was. I have no sympathy for successives governments whose lack of clarity on their role (tip: your ultimate responsibility is to the citizen – NOT BUSINESS) helped cause this.

Almost all participants in the food supply chain knowingly participated in this deception – and therefore need to take some part of the responsibility. At this point, I include shoppers too. They demanded lower prices, they bought the cheap food. Admittedly, you didn’t know it was horse, but for years mechanically recovered meat has knowingly been a key constituent of cheap processed food and people continued to buy it.

And I don’t let marketers off by the way. You, we, are guilty too.

For years, our a majority of our food industry could be broadly characterised by ‘Ask no questions hear no lies‘. A conspiracy of mislabelling, bullshit content listing and irresponsible marketing has created low fat foods that are full of sugar, low sugar foods that are full of fat, healthy foods more unhealthy than the generic version they started as and the situation whereby a chemistry degree is needed to decode even basic foods ingredients lists.

Beef is horse, ‘meat’ can mean no meat and the complex supply chain for a burger can mean it travels more across Europe than than a student Interrailer.

Manufacturers knew what was in there, so did supermarkets, so did governments. And all the while, the poor consumer who wanted to save money found themselves getting fatter without any real understanding of why. I’m not letting people out of personal responsibility, but if you think that food labelling doesn’t matter and isn’t important, then you don’t appreciate how good food marketers are at their job.

London, we have a problem.

Here is what I think the problem is.

Our food industry has the ethics of an alley cat. The producers, the supermarkets, the fast food chains. The whole lot.

I’m happy to debate this, but I’ll take your response seriously when there are more incentives on buying healthy food rather than crap, when food is labelled honestly and wheat coated in honey and chocolate is not allowed to be called a breakfast cereal.

The one group that could do something, Government, seems unwilling to actually grow a set of balls and do its job. This is a massive error, both ethically and financially. If you think correcting this and intervening would be expensive, just wait until those obese kids start becoming obese adults and demanding help from the NHS. Any costs today will seem inconsequential compared to managing a country where the majority of citizens are overweight and obese. It is this point that I care personally about most.

Being in business does not require you to sign away your morals. It doesn’t require an abdication of any social responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you cannot care. Today though, this is what most people see from an increasing number of our businesses.

You have a choice.  As a corporate strategist, as a product manager, as a marketer.

You also have a choice as a person and sometimes as a parent.

You can take some responsibility here.

And it is this lack of responsibility – this lack of ownership, this lack of personal caring which is helping to cause our obesity problems.

I’m not going to argue that tackling obesity and fixing our food supply is not a big and highly complex challenge, it is. It absolutely fulfils the criteria of a ‘wicked problem’. But this does not mean we cannot make a big difference. We can. We can fix this. The solution though will not come from an advertising campaign launched by a single government department.

Where government has this COMPLETELY WRONG though is in thinking that this is about massive funding (which means nothing will happen); a huge complex top down programme that will deliver nothing or simple fix-all dictats such as banning advertising of junk-food to children (although that is a start).

The starting point is a set of simple, unambiguous and easily understood principles.

Once you agree these, designing actions and programs to effect change is pretty straight forward.

These principles are then applied across ALL government actions.

  • In procurement
  • legislation
  • investment
  • training
  • education
  • in fact … EVERYTHING

Every government action, investment or activity should be tested against the principles.

What you end up with is that small list of principles influencing thousands of much smaller decisions. Only when you have this coordinated actions across government will you see some change. And because they are derived from a core set of principles, they are aligned. This means fewer loopholes and gaps through which companies can evade responsibility.

This principle, of getting the core principles right applies to companies too, particularly those involved in the recent problems.

  • Don’t start by reengineering your supply chain
  • Don’t start by redesigning packaging
  • Don’t start by launching another fad product
  • Don’t start by marketing about how sorry you are (although nothing has changed)

Start by making some simple and clear statements about what you stand for. Be bold and ambitious, but keep them simple and clear. Start with your ethics, your principles and your beliefs. Once you have these in place, you have a firm foundation on which to build a sustainable company. Define what you stand for – THEN you can start to fix the problems and design the type of company that you can be proud of.

If you are stuck, don’t seek an MBA wielding corporate strategist. Don’t attend the latest industry summit, instead read The Responsible Company by Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard or read the autobiography of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. Learn from those who tried their best to put principles first. You will discover it is not easy, that it is not a route without failure, but it is the right thing to do.

This is not just a wake up call for the food industry, but to all organisations.

And the simple lesson for all companies?

Ethics matter. They always did.

This post is an updated version of a reply to a blog post from the Interacter website. Neil’s post focuses on how food companies are failing to capitalise on the recent horse meat problems. 

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