Monday, 11 February 2013

Beef with efficiency

The current horsemeat in frozen beef meals scandal is an interesting illustration of the issues around what constitutes efficiency which I discuss at several points in the book. The story reflects many different dimensions of this. The way that a hugely complex globalized supply chain has developed reflects one particular, dominant, understanding of organizational efficiency: driving down costs by all means possible. That presents some serious problems even leaving aside the use of horsemeat, such as the unappetising use of mechanically recovered meat products. Thus, even if our microwaveable lasagne only contained beef, we might be rather horrified to see just what that really consisted of, as this selection of charming images allows us to do. But this is what ‘efficient’ use of carcasses means in the dominant understanding. Passing off horsemeat as beef, of course, represents something beyond this ‘normal’ efficiency, because it involves fraud and misrepresentation. But it is only the extension of the same logic. For the suppliers and producers involved it is, precisely, efficient.

To prevent such frauds, and to control the adulteration of foodstuffs in general, requires state regulation, and such regulation is one of the earliest examples of regulation of the free market. This becomes much more complex in extended global supply chains which span national jurisdictions, another of the ways that politics has not caught up with economics as I said in an earlier post about tax avoidance. But it also makes it bizarre that, in the UK, recent years have seen a reduction of food inspectors. Of course this, too, is ‘efficient’ with respect to government budgets, ‘removing the burden of red tape’ from businesses, and ‘getting value for money’ for the taxpayer. In other ways it is grossly inefficient. For a little more paid in tax, the supermarkets and food brands now suffering a catastrophic collapse of confidence in their products - and maze of expensive legal actions - could have had an ‘efficient’ system of inspection.

Then, beyond this, there is you and me, the consumer. Unwilling to spend our time buying ingredients and cooking them, we find it more efficient to buy packaged up meals for the microwave. Worldwide, consumption of ready meals increased by about 10% in volume 2010-2011. And not only do we want it quick, we want it cheap. Efficient? Perhaps not, considering the very high amounts of salt and fat that some of these meals contain. So maybe the time we saved on cooking will turn out to be dwarfed by the time we end up spending in hospital. There will be plenty of time on the cardiac ward to ponder the meaning of efficiency.


  1. The wider issue concerns the extent to which companies care about their customers. Your book deals with this issue under fast and footloose capitalism, Chapter 5, second edition. Put another way, we have moved from the virtuous Stone Age (direct relationship between action and consequence) to the unethical Drone Age (much diminished relationship between action and consequence). Findus foods are fired at consumers not from some wholesome Swedish food company but from private equity investors whose familiarity with reconstituted-food consumption is likely to be minimal. The drone mentality allows you to go about your business without fear of the consequences or, as Barack Obama put it recently, admittedly in a decidedly different context, and he should know, "There's a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can [act] without any mess on our hands".
    Incidentally, the issue of pay differentials, that you raised in the previous blog, might be more effectively addressed but for the drone-like detachment of pension fund shareholders from their managers’ pay settlements.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Terry. I suppose that in general I think that companies give their customers as bad a deal as they - the companies - can get away with. I don't think we should expect them to care beyond that. The stone age - drone age image I think is very acute. As has been widely remarked upon (most notably by Emmanuel Levinas) ethics is crucially related to distance. Those we are distant from - geographically, historically or psychologically - do not command our moral attention. That insight links so many diverse phenomena, from the way we regard catastrophes in 'far way countries of which we know little' through to our assessment of centuries-old genocides to our ability to demonize marginal groups. One important role of politics - and, specifically, regulation - it seems to me is to insert an institutionalised 'caring' into the gap between our capacity for empathy and the abstracted relationships of a globalized economic order.

      Free marketeers often invoke Adam Smith but rarely understand even his account of markets. Still less do they understand his moral philosophy in which empathy is central (the capacity to put oneself into another's shoes) which of course could also be seen as central to Enlightenment, specifically Kantian, understandings of ethics. Well, our individual capacity for empathy, which requires locally available, embedded relations, has been overtaken by globalization. So it is to institutions we must look to create empathy by proxy.

  2. Whatever happened to corporate social responsibility and stakeholders? Your analysis sounds a bit bleak, resigned, almost defeatist. Consumer activism is what’s needed, maybe channelled through an organisation like Avaaz. They or, rather, we the members, have a current campaign against bankers’ bonuses - “Tame the Bankers” - and the recent campaign to stop Waitrose linking up with Shell was a resounding success. So, let’s not wait for institutions to “create empathy by proxy”. If I’ve understood the Stone Age to Drone Age correctly, let’s act like cavemen not slavemen! We don’t need to go out and kill a woolly mammoth but we do need to boycott dodgy goods and buy locally. We need to shop in ‘meatspace’ not ‘cyber space’, though cyber space can be non-droney if it’s used as a vehicle for generating democratic action, like the Zeitgeist Movement and Occupy Britain. Don’t miss Zeitgeist Day on 16th March

  3. Thanks for your comment, John. Yes I can see how my analysis sounds defeatist. I do agree with you about consumer activism, but I also think that it has limitations and, in some ways, it's already in its nature bound up with a kind of market rationale, almost the flip side of those free-marketeers who give as their justification that they are just doing what consumers demand. In the end I see fundamental institutional and ideological change as the way forward but, sure, these things won't just happen and you are quite right to chide me for implying that we should just sit around and wait rather than as, as you again rightly say, organizing and agitating for this change. So thanks for making me stop and re-think.