Owen Paterson doesn’t get it

Some companies seem to think consumers will keep taking it on the chin because we accepted being spoon fed this stuff for so long and have seen our high streets die in front of our eyes and replaced by faceless, unaccountable conglomerates without conversation, without relationships, and they think well accept anything, that well just roll over and die.

Which well-known celebrity anti-capitalist activist do you think launched that scathing on-air attack on corporate ethics last week as news of the 100% horse meat lasagne broke?

I’ll put you out of your misery. Because if you weren’t listening to Radio 2 on Friday morning you’ll be a long time guessing. It was Chris Evans. Yes, Chris Evans. He of Gobsmackers and Wrong Bongs fame. Player of The Candyman and excitable Ferrari fan.

And at 7.30 on Friday morning Chris Evans sounded like an angry man. He isn’t the only one. In The Sunday Times the reliably un-pc Rod Liddle fulminated that “the truth is that if the mass producers of food could get away with selling us rat or kitten they would until they got caught, problem is that we have fewer checks these days on the filth the supermarkets sell us”. The supernaturally calm Today programme and Dragon’s Den presenter Evan Davis tweeted “Brands: if you put your name on something, you should bloody well know what’s in it”.

This was the industrial food chain caught well and truly with its trousers down. And everyone got it. Everyone except Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, who remains a study in insouciance. Nobody died, the food processors, brands and retailers are victims (rather than principal players in a supply chain that’s been exposed as systemically negligent, unaccountable and deceptive), a few people got “let down” – that’s seems to be sum of it, according to Paterson.

What has entirely escaped Owen Paterson’s notice is the enormous breach of trust the horsemeat scandal represents for British consumers. For a long time most people have very largely trusted the big retailers and big good brands, despite a trail of earlier food scandals and cover-ups. But if Chris Evans is in any way representative of mainstream consumer attitudes (nearly 9 million listeners a day suggests he might be onto something), the days of taking it on the chin and being mollified by Big Food’s PR machine could be close to an end.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.