“the merchant’s function… is to provide for the nation. It is no more his function to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend. This stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true clergyman, any more than his fee (or honorarium) is the object of life to a true physician. Neither is his fee the object of life to a true merchant. All three, if true men, have a work to be done irrespective of fee – to be done even at any cost, or for quite the contrary of fee; the pastor’s function being to teach, the physician‘s to heal, and the merchant’s, as I have said, to provide. That is to say, he has to understand to their very root the qualities of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtaining or producing it; and he has to apply all his sagacity and energy to the producing or obtaining it in perfect state, and distributing it at the cheapest possible price where it is most needed.”
John Ruskin, Unto This Last (1862)
Europe’s ‘horseburger’ scandal reveals starkly what happens when Ruskin’s vision is rejected. It is particularly embarrassing for the Co-operative Group to find horsemeat in its ready meals, given the Co-op’s origins as an alternative economic model that was supposed to guarantee working folk wholesome food, free from adulteration by unscrupulous shopkeepers.
Rogue traders there always are, especially in a culture that uncritically lauds enterprise and can’t easily spot when creativity crosses over into crime. It’s also a culture that regards taxation as theft, so we can’t expect any more food inspectors to be hired in current circumstances. That leaves inspection to the supermarkets, who will pass on the cost to the consumer. We pay one way or the other, but what we really need is a change of mindset, towards one that promotes zero-tolerance of bad business practices in the first place. Perhaps a revival of the old guild system?
There’s no doubt that our food supply is a mess in all kinds of ways. Take a look at one website that sets out all the inter-related aspects we need to be thinking about reforming. We’ve written before about food, and wouldn’t change a word of that. So it’s good to see that we’re in at the beginning of a worldwide re-evaluation of what goes on our plate and how it gets there.