It starts and ends with you
Prawn feed, a ghost ship, slave labour. It sounds like a horror story, but what's truly horrific is the very, very real nature of the gargantuan supply chains our biggest corporations deal with, and the fact that they are out of control. While cows vs horses seemed to be pretty easy to get riled up over, prawns, prawn feed and a labyrinthine supply chain (that even the companies within it don't understand) isn't quite as tangible, but the message is clear: none of these businesses know what's going on.
Last year we heard about horse meat that slipped in, somewhere down the road, so that bits of horse DNA emerged in burgers right across the UK's supermarket industry. Let's be clear- the thing that is scary is that an animal that shouldn't have been anywhere near whatever gets put into beef burgers somehow did fall in at some point, and it took the UK's biggest supermarkets weeks to work out where this had happened. Weeks. For all the marketplace-vibes and kitsch bakery counters, that's how little any of these brands know about where their products come from, let alone their consumers. What's even worse is that this only came about because of investigative journalism. Don't let a supermarket try and tell you they give a shit about any of this- it's only when it comes to covering it up that it becomes a PR issue.
And yet again it's the same defensive rhetoric from Tesco, Carrefour and Walmart over how their prawns are sourced. Every time these stories emerge, it's like they've been taking cues from the Leveson trial "I don't recall" bingo. How many ways are there to say "we don't have a clue"? Too many. CP Foods is the company the Guardian has traced to buying the fishmeal from slave ships that it then uses to feed its farmed prawns, which in turn are sold to all the supermarket names we recognise as filling our fridges. Here's what its UK managing director and, according to his LinkedIn, company owner Bob Miller had to say to the Guardian:
"We're not here to defend what is going on. We know there's issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."
So a company with an annual turnover of £20 billion doesn't have "visibility" about where the product that it sells comes from. What's more, having been called up by the Guardian for a comment on this piece, the best initial response it has to atrocities including slave labour are that it just does not know.
Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are the three biggest retailers in the world, and they have huge, gaping holes in the knowledge around their supply chains. Why? Because prices need to stay low and outsourcing halfway around the world, while that might have sounded crazy to our great-grandparents, is actually cheaper than doing it at home. Questions don't have to get asked until journalists ask them, and thus we arrive at the mighty problem with corporations since the post-industrial era: they are out of control.
What are consumers supposed to do? In steps the oft-heard mantras for our generation: "I care where my food comes from" "I care about the clothes on my back". People do care more, and you can see that in the rise of organic food and fair trade products. The problem is putting trust in companies that may not know themselves. Because, this just in, the company isn't the final stage on the supply chain- it's us. When Iceland and Tesco got dragged in front of a select committee in May last year to defend the presence of horsemeat in their burgers, the responsibility didn't stop with them- it stops at the person paying for it. Yes, those supermarkets claimed they were never aware of its presence so everyone that thought they were eating beef was tricked, and you could argue there's nothing you can do- but ignorance is old. If a piece of meat you’re about to consume has to get down to DNA level to work out where parts of it are derived from, something is pretty wrong. So when a supermarket has such a lax, sprawling supply chain where a horse can slip into a beef burger, or evidence of entire ships running on slave labour can emerge, just imagine what we don't know.
Cut down the companies you trust and start taking control of your own supply chain, because in the end, the only way corporations like Tesco and Walmart survive is because of ease and pricing, and once you start taking in to account other issues, such as labour conditions, quality of produce, sustainability and traceability, it becomes far easier to spot the people in control and the ones that don't have a fucking clue. This might sound like a daunting task when you think about your consumption habits on a daily basis, but ironically enough, Tesco has been right all along about one thing: Every Little Helps. So get some priorities and work out who you're not going to do business with and where your supply chain starts and ends. It's your money they're spending, so choose some companies worth betting your bottom dollar on.