Friday, 29 September 2017

The Not-So-Shocking Supermarket Chicken Shocker

Were you shocked by the Guardian/ITV expose that allegedly uncovered a catalogue of food standards breaches? Their undercover reporting appeared to reveal unsold chicken that had been returned to the factory was being repackaged and sent out as fresh. They discovered labels changed on crates of chicken that altered the 'killed' date to both extend the shelf life and change the identification of the source of the birds, making traceability meaningless. 

You shouldn't be shocked. 

I doubt that anyone who has ever worked in a target-driven industrial set-up will be quite as shocked. You see, as much as supermarkets with their faux-farm labelled packages, like us to have an image of our food coming from a bucolic, green-and-pleasant land farm, the truth is that the vast majority of supermarket meat - especially chicken - is produced on an industrial scale with industrial values. 

Equally, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were quick to point out that an effective and efficient audit system was in place and reeled off a list of audits that were meant to prove that all is well in our industrial food system. I think they intended it to reassure us but it doesn't does it? What it says is that in spite of the FSA these alleged target-cheating practices still happened and, according to witnesses are endemic.

Not so long ago we saw stomach turning footage of an abattoir worker literally throwing sheep onto a fast moving conveyor belt. Two things were clear from the secretly filming: one cruel practices were taking place unchecked, but also the worker was clearly struggling to keep up with the pace of work that was demanded of him. He sacrificed animal welfare for the sake of keeping up with the production target required.     

Target driven cultures do not encourage workers to produce products enriched by the wholesome values that company bosses say they aspire to. Targets drive people to achieve the targets - often no matter how that is achieved. 

This might be fine where volume is everything, where widgets are made to a standard specification for example and they either are, or aren't right. But this is our food, and food embodies a whole raft of other attendant issues. Things like animal welfare, health and hygiene, and public trust to name a few. 

I would argue, and often do, that factories are no place for food production. 

Next time you meet someone that has worked in a target driven culture ask them what tricks they learnt to cheat the targets. I've worked in one and could tell you a few. Fans of targets might tell you that it is simply that the targets in this case were the wrong ones - if you get the targets right, they say, you will get good, measurable performance that encapsulates the values and regulations you want applied to your food. 

I would argue differently - I am a fan of systems thinking, a completely different approach to work and the way to manage it. For a readable and witty look at targets and how they constantly fail us in the public sector, I'd recommend this blog. 

In the meantime, lets not throw our hands up in horror that workers cheat in order to achieve what they believe the company wants of them. Let's accept that food made in factories is inherently driven by profit: feeding the nation with wholesome food is a secondary (if at all) driver. Food from factories is simply a commodity to be traded. 

If, like me, you do not like this sort of food manufacture, make it your mission to buy food from places where the supply chain is short and people can tell you where the food came from. A good butcher can usually tell you where their meat was killed and where it was farmed. You don't need me to tell you that is not the case in a supermarket.