So, this week it is Dutch and Belgian eggs, allegedly contaminated by farmers using veterinary products created by mixing one insecticide with an illegal other. From the Guardian's report: "Millions of eggs are being recalled from shops and warehouses in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium after they were found to contain high levels of a toxic insecticide banned from use in the production of food for human consumption...A criminal investigation has been launched as authorities seek to get a grip on the scale of the problem".
A consequence will be to energize discussion about what our food production industry should look like. Should it be small and 'family-sized' or should it be big and 'industrial'? It will probably fuel the debate although, in this case, it appears to be about the supply of a contaminated veterinary product that could, probably, be employed on farms be they small or large. It may be a one off, but as with the melamine contamination scandal in China, or the closer-to-home, horse-gate scandal, the repercussions can be highly significant and long lasting. By its nature, maybe this one will be debate-fuelling as opposed to driving immediate change within the market and the industry.
Such an occurrence also raises the question of just how valuable farm assurance schemes are. One can keep their veterinary products safely lock away, books in order, cat wormed, but the contents of the secured medicine bottles themselves relies on the integrity of the manufacturer. And if that fails, the scheme offers little protection in an affected market and to the income of the quality-assured farmer. Food scandals frighten the consumer and a few criminals may eventually pay via the Courts, but the main sufferer is most likely to be the innocent farmer, diligently plying her or his trade.
Whether factually based or not, this will most likely be gist to the mill of those who believe that factory farms should be a consigned to the history books that record the years either side of the Millennium. If it transpires that the enhancement of the original medicament happened because of a decline in insecticide efficacy that is traceable to profligate use on intensively-stocked poultry farms, then maybe they will have a sound case. Regardless of one's animal-welfare viewpoint, there must be concerns for the efficacy of our chemical weaponry resulting from over-use and especially so when it comes to the prophylactic use of antibiotics. In this case, however, for the moment, the jury is out.
A further question that will be raised is, are short or long supply-chains better? With horse-gate it became evident that globalization made traceability difficult. Multiple supply sources also offered opportunity to meddle. Again, this Dutch case sounds like the veterinary product could have equally have found its way onto 10,000 smaller farms or 1,000 bigger ones. Maybe in this case, industrial scale will make traceability and containment easier but, further down the road, will the consumer look at it so? It is trust issue, and where will they place their trust, in the multinational or in the local, down-the-road-farmer? This week's scandal is likely to only further define consumer preferences about whom they should trust to provide their food; albeit that their actual food purchases will still be dictated by their own household food budgets.As to the bigger picture, for many modern-day consumers, the scale of Irish family farms hovers around the ideal. They are of a 'human-scale' that they can associate with. It should be the basis for any number of Irish brands. And they should be brands that also encompass 'ethical' characteristics like 'free-range', 'soil-conserving' and 'biodiversity-enhancing'. They are brands that should offer the complete package.
Of course, the conundrum for the farmer is how to compensate for lost-scale with an enhanced price and small-scale with reaching distant markets, but they are riddles that should be solvable if the will and government support is in place to help. And, not forgetting, the willingness and desire exists to change. But, at least for now, others continue to help the course, albeit through their frequent, miscreant, food-scandal-creating activities as such food scandals do create opportunities; if one sees them for what they are and grasps them as they go by.
Opinion piece by Stuart Meikle.