Monday, February 25, 2013

The Anonymous Food Factories

With more mislabeled meat being found every day in processed food in Europe, one suggestion that has been made is for improved food labeling.

In some ways, this is obviously correct. The original complaint, after all, was that one kind of meat was being labeled as another. Looked at another way, it is hard to see how tighter food labeling rules would make a difference. Rules already require that meat be labeled accurately according to its commercial type, and it is these rules that are being flagrantly broken. More rules won’t help much if these rules too will just be ignored.

It is not so much the food that needs closer scrutiny, but the factories where it is made. The current system allows food factories to remain effectively anonymous, as food is distributed under the most famous names available, names like Nestle and, the latest on the list, Ikea. These companies, though, may have only superficial knowledge of the factories that make the food they sell. It can take a company like Ikea hours to determine which factory a bag of meatballs came from. The people who actually eat the meatballs have no idea of the factory.

The horsemeat scandal is shedding more light on this system, but even in scandal the factories often remain unnamed. It is one of the more ironic results of trademarks that the actual source of a product can remain a secret.