Can industry learn lessons from the horse meat crisis?


As you can’t fail to have noticed it’s becoming increasingly difficult here in the UK to escape the metaphorical – and occasionally literal – whiff of horse meat.

And with fresh evidence of the degree to which our food supplies have been compromised emerging on a daily basis, it’s tempting to wonder where the crisis will lead us next.

Might the composite wings of Boeing’s grounded Dreamliners contain traces of nag DNA? Is there some as yet uncovered equine dimension to the bankers bonuses debate? And, perhaps most worryingly, if our beef-burgers are full of horse, what on earth is in our horse burgers?

The crisis is, of course, something of a disaster for the food industry, and has triggered perhaps one of the biggest damage limitation exercises in the history of our supermarkets. Tesco’s full page ad in yesterday’s newspapers – in which the normally mulish retailer announced “we are changing” – was a sign of just how rattled they’ve become.

The reasons for the current crisis are complex, with a host of factors from government cuts to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to, bizarrely, changes in Romanian traffic laws restricting the use of horse and carts, all suspected to have played a role.

But at the root of the problem is our insatiable appetite for cheaper food, which has fuelled a relentless search for the lowest cost supplier and led to complex, unwieldy supply chains that are increasingly open to corruption and contamination.

It’s a stark illustration of one of the potential pitfalls of outsourcing production to the cheapest bidder which, though it might make short term financial sense, can often, unless very carefully managed, lead to some major problems.

So are there lessons here for the engineering and manufacturing sectors, themselves no strangers to complex, often labyrinthine, international supply chains?
There are certainly some recent parallels. The public criticism faced by Apple in recent years over the working conditions at Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract manufacturer that builds most of its products, is one particularly notable example.

And here on The Engineer we do often hear of supply chain horror stories, where a decision to out-source manufacturing hasn’t quite had the intended results.

I’m reminded of a conversation with the managing director of folding bike manufacturer Brompton, frequently championed as a paragon of UK manufacturing excellence, in which he recalled how his firm’s short-lived effort to license manufacture of the iconic bike to a manufacturer in the Far-East had led to a disjointed supply chain and a vastly inferior product. Far better, he argued, to ensure your manufacturing standards remain high by keeping your supply chain short and close to home.

It’s perhaps difficult to do when your consumers are demanding ever cheaper products, but as the food industry is discovering to its cost, the customer isn’t necessarily always right.

Parallels with the engineering sector do break down after a while. And in truth, despite a few exceptions, there are many more examples of successfully managed supply chains. Indeed, it’s perhaps far easier and more tempting to cut corners in food production than it is in the manufacture of, for instance, cars or consumer electronic devices, where inferior quality raw materials will directly affect the performance of the end products.

So while the current crisis could certainly be viewed by all industries as a reminder of the perils of sacrificing quality on the alter of lower costs, perhaps our beleaguered food and drink sector could do a lot worse than look at how manufacturing maintains quality, and manages its supply chains, and remains competitive.