News 19.02.2013

Horsemeat scandal: cheap is not the problem!

Horsemeat is declared as beef – and consumers are at fault for the deceptive practice because they always want everything they buy to be cheap? In the view of foodwatch, this duplicitous argumentation falls short of the mark. The food sector and politicians attempt to lay the blame on consumers in order to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. The real problem lies elsewhere.

Whether rotten meat in kebabs, dioxin in eggs, or horsemeat in beef lasagne – every time there’s a food scandal, the knee-jerk reaction is always the same: because of their “cheap is where it’s at” mentality, consumers have no one to blame but themselves. Since people want to buy “cheap, cheap, cheap”, it shouldn't come as a surprise if they get bad products and are lied to and deceived.

So far, so facile. However, this argumentation falls short of the mark – and diverts attention away from the actual problems. Politicians and food industry executives are only too happy to place the responsibility for their own shortcomings on consumers. The truth is, in the food sector the purchases made by consumers have no influence on products or production methods.

  • Deception has nothing to do with price: Undeclared horsemeat has appeared in Nestlé products as well as in cheap, no-name goods. Labelling scams have come to light particularly for expensive, brand-name products (probiotic yogurt, products for children, etc.).
  • Quality can’t be measured by price: When it comes to food, expensive doesn't automatically mean good, and cheap doesn't automatically mean bad. A cheap, no-name lasagne and an expensive, brand-name lasagne: both involve the same product with identical quality and production.
  • Quality is not transparent – buying cheaply often makes sense: Food producers are not very forthcoming with information about the features of their products. For example, how and where animals were raised – that information isn’t listed on the packaging. When purchasing expensive meat, consumers have no way of knowing whether it’s “better”. In the absence of suitable information, they can’t compare the quality of two products but only their prices – meaning that it often makes sense to choose the cheaper product.
  • There’s competition for price, but not for quality: Regardless of the price segment in which it sells its products, every company strives to keep costs low and profits high. As long as deceptive practices go unpunished and quality isn’t required to be made transparent, low-quality products are sold at expensive prices with the aid of misleading information – the logical consequence of a misguided market.Deception and quality have nothing to do with origin: One farmer from the region doesn’t necessarily raise animals better than another farmer.
  • Deceptive practices are particularly common with regional products: Products labelled as originating in Thuringia or Saxony actually come from Bavaria. Brandenburg milk comes from Cologne. And “Louisiana crawfish” marketed by Büsumer Feinkost doesn’t come from Louisiana or even the North Sea but rather from China.
  • German consumers are not cheapskates: Consumers in German aren't possessed by a "cheap is where it’s at" mentality. The reason why they spend a lower proportion of their income on food than, say, French consumers do is because the price level for food in Germany in relatively low as a result of stiff retail competition and the high concentration of discounters.
  • Expensive – but nevertheless deceived: Although per person, French consumers (have to) spend more for food, they too were deceived with horsemeat lasagne – just like German consumers.
  • Consumers are willing to spend more for quality: They buy overpriced brand-name yogurt because they assume the quality is higher based on the supposed health benefits. They buy not just generic but also top-shelf milk. And they‘ve stopped buying eggs from caged hens, although these are by far the cheapest.
  • Information is the only way for the customer to become king: It was not until the EU required that eggs from caged hens be labelled as such that consumers were able to decide against buying them. However, processed eggs (in noodles, pastries, etc.) are still exempt from this, and the industry continues to process mainly eggs from caged hens for these products. This example shows that the customer can become king only if he or she receives the necessary information about a product in order to be able to evaluate its quality.