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Could Fair Trade Meat End the Horseplay in Our Food Chain?

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HORSE MEAT
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I can't be the only one scanning the local supermarket's rows of oven-ready and microwaveable meals a bit differently these days. In the age of 'horse-gate', the few minutes spent deciding whether to plump for processed spag bol or chilli con carne on the way home from work now comes with an added dose of queasy self-loathing.

Wouldn't it be nice to know what's really in our food? Sadly, the supply chain has become so convoluted and mysterious that leading food manufacturers no longer know the origins of their own products.

Right on cue Fairtrade Fortnight is here, as if to embarrass much of the food industry with a reminder of how things can be done. Among the most compelling reasons to buy Fairtrade is transparency. The certification process not only guarantees the farmer a better price, but ties everyone in the supply chain to a mutual sense of obligation.

The producer only gets paid a premium if he or she guarantees the safety and quality of the tea leaves, coffee beans and bananas grown.

Last week I met Gerardo Arias Camacho, a 43-year-old coffee farmer from Costa Rica, who had come to visit Masteroast, a British roasting and packaging company. Gerardo explained how he and his fellow farmers had got rid of the controversial herbicide Paraquat in order to gain Fairtrade status for their co-operative.

"It led to higher quality of farming", he said. "It also opened our minds to the idea of communicating directly with the people responsible for selling our coffee, and to make sure the middle men are doing things the right way.

"Twenty years ago we had no idea where our coffee was going - it was a mystery to us," Gerardo added. "Now, you know exactly what you're buying, and we know where our produce ends up."

It strikes me most consumers would like this kind of assurance across a much wider range of things on the shelves and fridges of the supermarket.

Both Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb bear little blue and yellow labels showing off their Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. And the people at Assured Food Standards (AFS) are enjoying some success with the Red Tractor guarantee on selected fresh, British-made beef, lamb, pork and poultry.

The appeal of safe, locally-sourced fresh produce at present is obvious. But people like me - a bit lazy and nearly always skint - will go on buying processed food at the nearest supermarket. So finding a way of extending "assurance" labels across the board (and throughout the aisles) is something surely worth pursing.

The idea of a comprehensive fair trade-type system right here in the UK is not as far-fetched as you might think. Some groundwork has already been done. British dairy farmers, deeply pissed off with the paltry sums offered by the big supermarkets, have held discussions with Fairtrade Foundation officials about the common pressures domestic producers share with smallholders in the developing world.

Although policy chiefs at the Fairtrade Foundation are understandably reluctant to divert their attention away from vital international development work, they are clearly sympathetic to British farmers struggling to stay in business. Campaigners in North West England have been working with farmers in the region to develop a "Cumbria Local and Fair" scheme, encouraging local shoppers to make a connection between locally-sourced produce at farmers' markets and Fairtrade goods from overseas.

Some of the hesitance about extending the Fairtrade label domestically is down to a belief that we in the UK, unlike many in the developing world, have the power to fix safety problems through regulation.

But Fairtrade took off when consumers, believing the market wasn't operating sanely, grabbed the chance to be part of a viable alternative. No-one waited for governmental trade agreements to improve. Better farming practices and a new business model emerged as a result.

So why should we wait for more regulation, or for the coalition government's new Groceries Code Adjudicator to slap the supermarkets with a few fines for their bully boy tactics now and again?

Consumer demand is one of the most powerful forces in the food system. Why can't we demand a gold standard in processed meat production, one that also guarantees a fair deal for verified farmers? Isn't it just about possible to imagine manufacturers pressured into offering a microwavable lasagne with guaranteed "farm to fork" meat content and a fair pricing policy?

Yes, all the border-crossing involved in the meat industry makes the goals of traceability and transparency all the more awkward. Yet the very idea of an internationally-recognised ethical standard in some the world's most popular commodities would have seemed utterly fanciful 30 years ago, when the patchwork quilt of fair trade labels was limited to well-meaning 'world' shops scattered across Europe.

Meat is not a very pleasant business. Some of us unrepentant carnivores feel entitled, nevertheless, the option of knowing which bits of an identified dead animal are in our dinner. And if the option also helped more farmers stay in business, well - it would certainly make my pre-dinner deliberations at the supermarket a little less anxious.

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