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.