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Cambodia: aftermath of fatal shoe factory collapse... Workers clear rubble following the collapse of a shoe factory in Kampong Speu, Cambodia, on Thursday

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KFC expansion to create 1,600 jobs

Category : Business

Fried-chicken chain plans to open more than 40 restaurants across UK and Ireland, and refurbish 160 existing eateries

Fried-chicken restaurant chain KFC will create 1,600 jobs this year by opening more than 40 restaurants across the UK and Ireland.

The US-owned firm plans to spend £40m on the expansion drive. It will also spend a further £40m on a makeover of 160 existing eateries to “create a more modern, welcoming environment for customers”. The expansion drive will be co-funded by franchisees.

This year’s openings will boost its total number of UK and Ireland restaurants to nearly 900. The group says it could eventually have a total of 1,200 in the two countries.

KFC, which employs about 24,000 people, has been adding at least 30 new restaurants in the UK a year and says it has seen seven years of same-store sales growth in a row.

Low-cost fast food restaurants have been prospering, despite the economic slowdown. McDonalds has reported improving sales in the UK and Domino’s pizza delivery service recently reported a 10% improvement in annual profits despite sales growth slowing due to January store closures caused by bad weather.

KFC UK, which is a subsidiary of Pizza Hut parent company Yum! Brands, came to Britain in 1965. The first store opened in Preston, Lancashire.

The brand was founded in the US by Colonel Harland Sanders in the 1950s.

Beauty therapists to be banned from offering fillers unless qualified

Category : Business

Clampdown follows a review by NHS chief Sir Bruce Keogh which found the sector is full of cowboy practices

Beauty therapists are to be banned from offering injectable dermal fillers to smooth out wrinkles and rejuvenate faces unless they have been properly trained and hold a formal qualification, as part of a major review into cosmetic surgery.

The clampdown is a first shot across the bows of the industry, which an independent review led by NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh has found is inadequately regulated and full of cowboy practices.

Although facelifts, breast implants and other forms of surgery catch the headlines, 90% of the £2.3bn business comprises smaller, cheaper procedures such as dermal fillers, which are substances injected under the skin to plump out lines, and laser treatments for hair loss and wrinkles.

There are few controls over who can carry out these procedures. Yet Keogh’s review heard that some clients had suffered real harm when things went wrong. The injection of dermal fillers under the skin, for instance, can lead to bruising and swelling.

There have also been reports of skin necrosis – the death of skin tissue because of the blockage of blood vessels – and even of blindness.

“All too often we hear of cases that shine a light on poor practices in the cosmetic surgery industry,” said Keogh. “I am concerned that some practitioners who are giving non-surgical treatments may not have had any appropriate training whatsoever. This leaves people exposed to unreasonable risks, and possibly permanent damage.

“Our research has shown that the public expect procedures that are so widely available to be safe, whereas they are largely unregulated.

“There is a clear need for better quality, recognised training for the people performing these operations. My review will make a number of recommendations for making sure people who choose to undergo these procedures are in safe hands.”

The review will recommend that anybody offering non-surgical cosmetic interventions must either be properly trained and qualified to perform and supervise them or else qualified to carry them out under the supervision of a clinically trained superior. What those qualifications will be and who will be able to train for them has not been decided.

The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) gave the news a cautious welcome, saying it would like to see all such treatments restricted to medical professionals. “Non-surgical does not mean non-medical,” said consultant plastic surgeon and BAAPS president Rajiv Grover. “Treatment with dermal fillers has clear benefits but also risks – it is not just about who can wield a syringe but who will have the capabilities to deal with any possible complications.

“We agree that specialised training is required and [it should be] certainly more extensive than the many widely-promoted weekend courses currently available, but aesthetic injectables should only ever be provided by medical professionals.

“It is known that dermal fillers have a physiological (‘biological’) effect on skin — such as stimulating the production of collagen, and many of them also contain local anaesthetic. These factors make these substances, in essence, a medicine.”

BAAPS says many of its member surgeons have had to sort out the consequences of botched filler treatments. A recent survey found that 69% of surgeons saw patients suffering complications even from temporary fillers, while 49% saw problems with semi- or permanent fillers. Out of those patients who suffered problems with permanent substances, 84% required corrective surgery or were deemed untreatable due to the damage caused.

Keogh’s review looked at all aspects of the cosmetic surgery industry following the PIP breast implant disaster, which led to massive anxiety and thousands of women having implants removed, often on the NHS. Its full report is expected at the end of April.

“I await Sir Bruce Keogh’s recommendations in full, but am clear that we must ensure that people undergoing cosmetic procedures are in the hands of someone with the right skills and training,” said health minister Dan Poulter. “The days of cosmetic cowboys must become a thing of the past.”

Gym chains forced to relax contract terms

Category : Business

Contracts at Bannatyne Fitness, David Lloyd Leisure and Fitness First deemed ‘unfair’ by OFT

Three of Britain’s biggest gym chains have had to change their contracts to make it easier for people to cancel, after the Office of Fair Trading ruled their terms and practices were unfair.

Bannatyne Fitness, David Lloyd Leisure and Fitness First have all been forced to change their contracts after they were found to be making it difficult or impossible for people who were injured or made redundant to exit their gym agreements early.

Members of the gym groups are now able to cancel their contracts early should their circumstances change in a way that makes attendance at the gym difficult or unaffordable.

The gym groups have also had to reduce the notice period needed to cancel contracts that are longer than one year, and will no longer be able to describe membership as being of a fixed duration if the contract automatically continues on a rolling basis after the initial membership period has expired.

Bannatyne’s was also singled out for chasing gym-goers with “misleading” debt collection letters that sometimes threatened recipients with what appeared to be official-looking court documents, or making other unsubstantiated claims about action that had been taken. It will now stop sending these letters and is reviewing its other debt collection letters.

“Millions of people are members of gyms, and a membership contract can easily be a financial commitment of more than £500 per annum,” said Cavendish Elithorn, senior director of the OFT’s goods and consumer group. “We were concerned that contracts could unfairly lock people in if their circumstances changed, forcing them to continue paying even if they had lost their job.

“We welcome these changes from Bannatyne’s, David Lloyd and Fitness First. As well as making contract terms clearer, the revised contracts also grant members, and prospective members, more flexibility.”

The action taken against the three gym chains is part of an ongoing investigation the OFT started in January 2012, and stems from a court case involving Ashbourne Management Services, which draws up agreements and collects payments for gyms.

The judge in that case concluded a contract was unfair if it ran for longer than 12 months and did not allow the consumer to cancel with 30 days’ notice and a moderate penalty. The OFT is looking at gym contracts in light of this ruling. It confirmed it is continuing its investigation into some other companies, believed to include LA Fitness, and will provide an update in the next few weeks.

In January 2012, LA Fitness caused a storm of protest after an article in the Guardian told the story of Hannah, a reader from Billericay in Essex, who was seven months pregnant and wrote to the paper after her husband lost his job, leaving the couple living on benefits.

Hannah and her husband, who were about to move 12 miles away from their nearest gym, had been LA Fitness members for seven years and asked the gym chain to reconsider their two-year contract. But the gym insisted the couple pay the remaining 15 months, a total of £780. A protest by thousands on Twitter helped persuade the company to back down, and raised further questions about the fairness of long-term gym contracts.

Some gym chains made changes to their contracts once the OFT investigation started. The watchdog closed its investigation into Virgin Active in April 2012 after the company relaxed some of its terms.

A spokesperson for Bannatyne’s said: “Bannatyne Health Clubs are uniformly operating under contracts that meet the OFT recommendations with regard to length of contracts and provisions relating to cancellation due to illness.

“As a major national operator we have never used external debt collecting agencies and our contracts have never been greater than the 12-month maximum term proposed by the OFT.”

David Lloyd Leisure said: “Following extensive discussions with the OFT, DLL introduced improvements to the flexibility of its membership contract terms and conditions from December 2012.

“Primarily, DLL simplified – and further clarified – the ability for members to join either with short- or longer-term commitments and to switch between the two, as well as expanding those circumstances in which membership can be suspended or ended.”

A Fitness First spokesman said: “We have happily accepted all recommendations from the OFT to make contract terms more transparent, allowing more flexibility for our members.”

Horsemeat scandal: head of Irish firm questioned by MPs

Category : Business

Paul Finnerty questioned by select committee about beefburgers supplied to Tesco which contained 29% horse DNA

The head of the Irish-based beef processing giant at the heart of the horsemeat scandal was questioned by MPs on Tuesday over his chairman’s past connection to fraud and faking paperwork.

The ABP Food Group chief executive Paul Finnerty was summoned before the environment, food and rural affairs select committee to answer questions about how the beefburgers it supplied Tesco could have contained 29% horse DNA.

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, asked Finnerty why the committee should believe ABP now when his company’s chairman, Larry Goodman, had run a predecessor company that “had been found to have faked records, cheated customs officers, had bogus meat stamps manufacturered and practised institutionalised tax evasion”.

Referring to the report of a 1994 public inquiry in Ireland, Gardiner said that Goodman had employed an “A team” to change official health marks and repack and relabel beef as something it was not.

Were the same people now engaged in these activities at another company named in the current horsemeat scandal, Freeza Foods, Gardiner asked Finnerty.

Freeza Foods is the Northern Ireland cold store where substantial quantities of frozen meat that was 80% horse were discovered last month and quarantined by authorities. Two of its principal executives, Eamon Mackle and Jim Fairbairn, used to work for Goodman companies, and both were identified as key players in a fraud that took place between 1986 and 1987 and attempts to cover it up. Fairbairn was a senior executive with Goodman’s international division and Mackle ran a boning hall under contract at a Goodman meat factory.

The Irish inqury found the two men had been involved in a fiddle to make false claims for EC subsidies and cover up the cheat when customs officials discovered that the beef Anglo-Irish Beef Processors had packed was 15% trimmings and not the high-grade beef it should have been.

Goodman also had a hidden group of companies through which he operated in the 1980s, the MP went on. Did they or a similar secret structure still exist, he asked.

The ABP boss admitted to MPs that there had been a breakdown in the company’s internal controls but told the committee that it was isolated to its Silvercrest plant that supplied Tesco with the beefburgers. Managers had used meat that was bought from suppliers who were not on an approved list. He refused to name the supplier of the meat, but said it had come from Poland. “We do not trade in horsemeat,” he said. ABP was itself the victim of a fraud, Finnerty added, and the managers at the plant had been asked to stand aside while the investigation was conducted. “We have disbanded the division and withdrawn 10m burgers,” he added.

When asked by the Guardian last month about its executives’ connections to ABP, Newry-based Freeza Foods said in a statement, “There is no connection whatsoever between Freeza Meats, set up in 1988, and ABP.”

Finnerty said the other incidents Gardiner referred to were over 25 years old.

Growing taste for Fairtrade shows it’s Britain’s cup of tea

Category : Business

Sales of certified Fairtrade products – from food to flowers – are soaring despite the recession, as the price gap with other goods shrinks

Have you eaten a banana today? Last year Britain imported an extraordinary 4bn bananas from some of the poorest parts of the world. But in a triumph for campaigners, one in three bananas consumed in this country is now certified as Fairtrade, guaranteeing fair prices for farmers.

While sales of organic food are sagging, Fairtrade is booming. Sales in 2012 were £1.57bn, up 19% on the year before.

In what has mushroomed into a mainstream sector, more than 4,500 items registered with the distinctive Fairtrade mark are on sale in UK supermarkets and independent shops to help ethically minded consumers do their bit to ensure fair and transparent pricing through the supply chain.

Few people realise that Britain leads the world on Fairtrade. The label now accounts for 10% of all tea sold in the UK, just over 8% of all roast and ground retail coffee and 12% of chocolate. Last year Britons drank 2bn cups of Fairtrade coffee, 3.2bn cups of tea and chomped their way through 1.3bn Fairtrade bananas.

The Fairtrade Foundation‘s new chief executive officer, Michael Gidney, says: “Fairtrade sales continue to confound expectation in the midst of the current tough economic climate. The UK public has developed a lasting appetite for food and goods traded on fairer terms with producers, and forward-thinking businesses are responding energetically to this by providing a wider range of products.”

Despite this progress, Fairtrade still has a long way to go, accounting for as little as 1.5% of the overall UK food and drink market.

The foundation is on a mission to dispel the idea that Fairtrade-stamped goods are automatically more expensive than their counterparts. Gidney says economies of scale resulting from the arrival of major corporate players and brands such as Cadbury, Nestlé and Starbucks mean that price premiums once passed on to the consumer can now be absorbed within the business.

A Guardian Money survey using found that in many product categories – for example, coffee and chocolate – both cheaper and more expensive comparable conventional products flank Fairtrade products on supermarket shelves.

The Co-operative supermarket chain has been at the forefront of developing mainstream Fairtrade products for its shelves. Since first backing Fairtrade in 1998, and introducing the UK’s first Fairtrade bananas in 2000, the Co-op has grown into the UK’s largest Fairtrade retailer, notching up a 20% sales increase last year.

Brad Hill, Fairtrade manager at the Co-op, says: “There is a perception that people still pay a premium for Fairtrade but that is no longer the case. This month we became the first retailer in the UK to switch all own-brand bunches of standard roses and single-stem roses to Fairtrade, sourced from Fairtrade-certified growers in Kenya. We kept the price the same – £5.”

But bananas tend to remain an exception, because small-scale growers cannot hope to compete with non-Fairtrade products sourced from low-wage, high-chemical-use plantations. For example, in Asda, Fairtrade bananas work out at 20p each, compared with 15p for regular bananas.

Sales of cocoa, sugar and bananas have all enjoyed significant growth – with increases of 21%, 35% and 15% respectively over 2011 figures – although coffee, tea and cotton have seen flatter sales. That may have something to do with the remaining price differentials: Waitrose Fairtrade coffee is nearly double the price of its Essential non-Fairtrade coffee. But Tesco’s Clipper Fairtrade tea bags are now just a few pence dearer than an equivalent box of PG Tips.

How are farmers benefiting? Fairtrade says it is helping 1.24 million people – farmers and workers – across more than 66 developing countries. It says it guarantees a fair price and a brighter future for growers. As well as getting a fair price for their crops, they receive a Fairtrade premium that is put back into their farms and communities for the benefit of themselves and their families.

But the movement is not without its critics. Some on the left argue that Fairtrade has sold out to the major brands, while those on the right, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, say Fairtrade is just another brand with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and is not in a position to help all farmers.

Fairtrade is confident that this year will see another strong rise in sales, especially in the chocolate category. Mars’s Maltesers brand is now Fairtrade, as is Cadbury’s Bubbly and the full range of Green & Black’s chocolate. Growth in sugar sales has been boosted by Morrisons switching its own-label range to Tate & Lyle Fairtrade sugar and Ben & Jerry’s completing the conversion of its full range to Fairtrade. At the same time, enterprising Fairtrade companies such as Divine chocolate, Cafédirect, Traidcraft and Equal Exchange have brought out attractive new products.

The Fairtrade Foundation says 2013 is already off to a good start, with businesses such as Divine launching its Bee Happy range and Nestlé extending Fairtrade to two-finger Kit Kats, nearly trebling the company’s purchases of cocoa and sugar on Fairtrade terms.

Create, the award-winning ‘big society’ restaurant, closes down

Category : Business

Create restaurant in Leeds, praised by David Cameron and Jamie Oliver for its food and ethics, falls victim to harsh economic climate

A restaurant hailed by David Cameron as a “proud example” of “big society” in action has been forced to close as a result of the economic squeeze.

For a few heady months, Create restaurant lived out a northern version of Jamie Oliver’s social enterprise dream. It hired a star chef and offered great, reasonably priced cuisine that was fêted by critics: thinly sliced venison, partridge breast and sautéed girolles, all cooked and served up by a team partly made up of homeless trainees. The restaurant’s idealistic slogan was “Where good food and people matter”. The Good Food Guide praised the ethos, and comments from Downing Street were glowing. Last weekend, however, just months after it won Observer Food Monthly’s ethical restaurant of the year award, the dream came to an end. Create was forced to close after facing what it called “tough commercial realities”.

Its rapid rise and precipitous fall – in five years it grew from a sandwich-making venture in a Leeds night shelter for the homeless to a business with a turnover of more than £1m and branches across the north of England – is seen exemplifying the struggle faced by social enterprises: ethically driven firms that reinvest profits in a “social mission”.

Create said that despite winning plaudits for its food and achieving huge success in training disadvantaged youngsters – nearly two thirds of the 500 homeless trainees who passed through its kitchens not only found work elsewhere, but were still in a job six months after “graduation” – it had struggled financially. Attempts to widen its income by tapping into government welfare-to-work business had failed, despite its expertise and record. Chairman Norman Pickavance said its small size meant that it was effectively excluded from competing for contracts in the Work Programme, which is dominated by big firms.

Pickavance, a former director of Morrisons supermarkets, said: “We set out with high ideals. We were going to do this [train disadvantaged youngsters] by making money out of the restaurant. But the maths don’t work. In these tough times, selling food is not enough.”

Peter Holbrook, the chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, said that Create’s difficulties were shared by many smaller social businesses, especially those squeezed out of “toxic” public sector markets such as the Work Programme. He warned: “We are going to lose a lot of innovation, a lot of organisations embedded in communities that achieve outstanding results for local people.”

The government has insisted that it wants to support social enterprises by opening public-sector markets. Cameron called Create “a proud example of the ‘big society’ I want to see across the UK”, and made it the second ever winner of the No 10 “big society” award in November 2010. Pickavance said that Create had been filled with optimism after winning the award and meeting ministers. “You think, ‘Wow, this has really taken off.’ But it is all rhetoric and no money.” Create’s last set of accounts filed at Companies House show losses of nearly £1m in 2011, partly as a result of opening new branches. Create board member and the millionaire businessman Ged Syddall, who made a fortune from government apprenticeship schemes, wrote off £900,000 in loans to try to keep Create afloat.

Create says the closure is temporary while it carries out a restructuring, led by its chef, the former Harvey Nichols head chef Richard Allen. The new business model is expected to concentrate more on training and less on food. In a statement, Create said: “Throughout this journey our passion has remained the same, helping the hardest-to-reach people in our community, and with your support we have managed to support over 500 people. However we are not a charity. As a social enterprise we pay the same rents as any other restaurant chain but have had higher costs because of the extra support work we do.

“So in today’s harsh economy we have had to look really hard at how we can continue helping the maximum number of people while dealing with some tough commercial realities.”

A year ago the Observer‘s food critic, Jay Rayner, gave Create a glowing review, citing “one of the best-cooked hunks of skirt steak I have ever enjoyed”. He concluded: “It says much for the success of this place that by the end of lunch even this cynical old dog was ready to clamber on to his hind legs and applaud.”

But the first outward signs of trouble surfaced in November, when Create warned that the business was “on a knife edge” after suffering cashflow problems. It closed operations in Manchester and Sunderland, and made 16 staff redundant. Create’s difficulties follow the demise of another high-profile social enterprise training restaurant, the Hoxton Apprentice, which went into administration at the end of last year.

Even Fifteen, which benefited from the public exposure of a TV series and the celebrity patronage of Jamie Oliver, has said that the cost of training disadvantaged youngsters – at around £30,000 a head – makes it hard to compete in the cut-throat world of restaurants and catering.

The meat scandal shows all that is rotten about our free marketeers | Will Hutton

Category : Business

This is a crisis not only for environment secretary, Owen Paterson, but for the whole Conservative party

The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.

Owen Paterson, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, is living through such a nightmare and is utterly lost. All his once confident beliefs are being shredded. As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from “wealth-destroying” regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.

Indeed, to save his career and his party’s sinking reputation, he has to reverse his position on every one. The only question is whether he is sufficiently adroit to make the change.

Paterson is one of the Tories who joyfully shared the scorched earth months of the summer of 2010 when war was declared on quangos and the bloated, as they saw it, “Brownian” state. The Food Standards Agency was a natural candidate for dismemberment. Of course an integrated agency inspecting, advising and enforcing food safety and hygiene should be broken up. As an effective regulator, it was disliked by “wealth-generating” supermarkets and food companies. Its 1,700 inspectors were agents of the state terrifying honest-to-God entrepreneurs with unannounced spot checks and enforced “gold-plated” food labelling. Regulation should be “light touch”.

No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA’s inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.

Paterson, beneath the ideological bluster, is as innocent about business as Bambi. Even the most callow observer could predict that with the wholesale slaughter of horses across the continent as recession hit the racing industry – horsemeat production jumped by 52% in 2012 – some was bound to enter the pan-European network of abattoirs, just-in-time buying, industrial refrigeration units, food brokers and giant supermarkets that deliver British and European consumers their food.

Meanwhile, the budgets of some local government food sampling units have been slashed by 70%. A Tesco beef burger containing 29% horsemeat was an accident waiting to happen. Of course it was the Food Safety Authority of Ireland rather than the FSA that blew the whistle. Businesses owned by footloose “tourist” shareholders whose sole purpose is profit maximisation in transactional markets have an embedded propensity to degrade. Consumers and suppliers alike become no more than anonymised numbers to be exploited to hit the next quarter’s profit target.

The large supermarkets have said little or nothing, which Number 10 deplores. There is nothing they can say. They have lobbied for the world in which we now live. An alternative world – in which consumers were genuinely served and where it is understood that suppliers need adequate profit margins in the supermarkets’ interests as much as the suppliers’ own – has to be created by stakeholders, including by government. There is a codependency between state, society, business and business supply chains, anathema to Paterson with his undeviating obeisance to the virtues of a “private sector” free from such “burdens”.

What the Paterson worldview has never understood is that effective regulation is a source of competitive advantage. If Britain had a tough Food Standards Agency, it would become a gold standard for food quality, labelling and hygiene. British supermarkets and food companies could become known for their quality at home and abroad, rather as “over-regulated” German car companies are, rather than first suspects when something dodgy is going on. Capitalism does not organise itself to deliver best outcomes, whatever rightwing American thinktanks might claim. There has to be careful thought, law and regulation about the obligations that accompany incorporation and ownership, how supply chains are organised and how companies are managed and financed. Otherwise disaster awaits.

And there are other bitter implications for Paterson. Geography means that Britain is inevitably part of the European food supply chain. Our efforts at better regulation – and of catching wrongdoers – have to be matched by others for everyone’s sake, exactly what the EU was set up to do and is now doing. The hypocrisy of passionate Eurosceptic Owen Paterson flying to the Hague urgently to meet Europol, saying afterwards: “It’s increasingly clear the case reaches right across Europe. Europol is the right organisation to co-ordinate efforts to uncover all wrongdoing and bring criminals to justice” and urging all European governments to share information with it, should not be lost on anyone. Europol holds powers from which Eurosceptic Tories, led by Paterson, urgently want an opt-out, but not in the middle of a first-order food safety and hygiene crisis.

That everything Paterson believes in is so wrong is not just a crisis for him – it is a crisis for his party and for Britain’s centre-right media whose prejudices makes thinking straight in the Tory party impossible. A great country cannot be governed by politicians whose instincts and policies are at such odds with reality, so betraying the people, economy and society they govern. The horsemeat crisis is not confined to our food chain. It reveals the existential crisis in contemporary Conservatism. British democracy needs a functioning, fit for purpose party of the centre-right.

Instead, it has Owen Paterson and today’s Tories.

Horsemeat scandal: more food regulation, not less, is the answer | Observer editorial

Category : Business

Owen Paterson is leaving ultimate responsibility to retailers. Not a good idea

If ever there was a scandal designed for the self-satisfied chatter of a British dinner party, it is that involving the discovery of horsemeat in cheap, ready-to-eat dishes labelled as beef. The arguments will be familiar: anybody buying cheap food gets what they deserve; too few people now know how to cook; we should all abandon the supermarkets in favour of our local independent shops.

And perhaps, in a perfect world, the middle-class rhetoric would apply. Of course consumers have a responsibility for what they feed themselves.

But this story is about something else. After all, consumers did take responsibility. They purchased products either made or sold by huge brand names such as Findus and Tesco, companies with decades on the high street that they had every right to trust. And in an age of genuine austerity, it ill behoves those who have enough cash to eat as they wish to stand in judgment on those who do not. Nobody shops in the value ranges out of choice.

Instead, we should focus on the mass retailers and the light-touch regulatory regime under which they operate. The declaration by environment secretary Owen Paterson, issued after yesterday’s food industry summit, that those retailers had “ultimate responsibility” for what they sold suggests that regime is unlikely to be beefed up in the near future.

We should not dismiss the major super-markets as evil incarnate. Their convenience, economies of scale and huge range have done much to benefit British food culture. But the economic heft of these corporate behemoths is massively dangerous and made a scandal such as the current one all but inevitable.

When huge companies use their power in the market place to salami-slice profit margins, unscrupulous manufacturers are going to look for ways in which to make a buck. Throw in a global food market, which has seen beef prices peak at historic highs far beyond those for horse, and you have the ingredients for a less than appetising storm.

In a grand act of missing the point, certain self-regarding foodies have asked why we shudder so at the thought of eating horse. After all, they say, it is a meat like any other. Rejecting it is a sentimental affectation. Not so. It’s not the horse. The problem is not knowing how it got in there. And if we don’t know how it got there, we don’t know where it came from, how it lived or, more to the point, how it died.

As a society, we have agreed to give the big supermarkets a free run at the retail food market, more than 80% of which they now control. In return for that must come a genuine corporate social responsibility, which goes far beyond staging fun runs and making donations to the local hospice. They have become de facto custodians of our food supply chain, a task in which they have obviously failed.

Then again, they have hardly been given encouragement to take those responsibilities seriously. It is telling that the first evidence of horse DNA in beef products emerged not because of the efforts of the regulatory authorities in this country, but due to those of the Food Standards Agency of Ireland. Recent cuts to the budgets of organisations such as Britain’s Food Standards Agency have made policing the food chain all the more difficult.

And there are more threats out there. One of the few comforts to be taken from this wretched tale is that it did not originate from within the domestic meat industry. Post the BSE crisis, Britain’s increasingly centralised abattoirs have some of the highest standards in the world.

The rigorous system of controls and oversight makes it all but impossible for horsemeat to have entered the food chain from within the UK. Hence all the suspect products originated from the near continent. And yet there are plans circulating within the FSA to relax on-site and independently verifiable meat inspections in favour of inspections by the owners of abattoirs themselves. It must not happen.

If the horsemeat scandal tells us anything it is that we need more government regulation, not less. It’s all well and good to tell the supermarkets that they have “ultimate responsibility”. But if they will not voluntarily police themselves with genuine rigour, then the state will have to do the job for them.

Unthinkable? No better dinner than ragout of cat

Category : Business

To Henry Labouchère, the siege of Paris was a time to destroy illusions, including the prejudice against eating many animals

Eating horse meat raises delicate issues. Yet Henry Labouchère’s 1871 diaries of the siege of Paris make today’s concerns seem unduly sensitive. “I dine habitually at a bouillon; there horse-flesh is eaten in the place of beef, and cat is called rabbit. Both, however, are excellent, and the former is a little sweeter than beef, but in other respects much like it; the latter something between rabbit and squirrel, with a flavour all its own.” Here is another entry: “When one is asked to dinner, as an inducement one is told that there will be donkey. The flesh … is delicious – in colour like mutton, firm and savoury.” And here a third: “I own for my part I have a guilty feeling when I eat dog. I had a slice of a spaniel the other day, it was by no means bad, something like lamb, but I felt like a cannibal. Epicures in dog flesh tell me that poodle is by far the best, and recommend me to avoid bulldog.” Another entry: “This morning I had a salmis of rats – it was excellent – something between frog and rabbit.” And another: “I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant.” This was a rare discouragement. “I never wish to taste a better dinner than a joint of donkey or a ragout of cat.” Labouchère was confident that the siege “will destroy many illusions, and among them the prejudice which has prevented many animals being used as food”. An idea whose time has come?

Minister acts to speed up Portas Pilots high street revamp

Category : Business

Local growth minister unveils network of business leaders to advise 27 towns piloting ideas suggested by Mary Portas

The government is hoping a national network of retail and property business leaders can speed up change on Britain’s high streets.

The Future High Streets Forum will advise the 27 towns piloting ideas suggested by TV retail guru Mary Portas, in a 2011 report for the government.

It will also guide 330 town teams, which are trying to revamp high streets in the face of competition from the internet. Alex Gourlay, the chief executive of Boots, and Mark Prisk, local growth minister, will co-chair the forum, which will include representatives from John Lewis, the Association of Town & City Management and the Association of Convenience Stores.

Prisk will tell a meeting of the 27 so-called Portas Pilots in Loughborough on Thursday: “It is clear that our high streets will need to change to prosper. There is already great work being done across the country to revitalise the town centres, but it needs to spread further faster.”

The new move comes as several pilot programmes have been slow to spend their £100,000 project funds while others have been hit by disagreements.