Stop horsing around! Why retailers must secure supply chains

14 February 2013

Cathy Barnes

Cathy Barnes


Another day and there is another revelation in the press about horse meat in our food. Whilst the food standards agency is assuring us that there is no suggestion of any risk to our health, that's not really the point is it?

Over and above the legal issue of incorrect food labelling, the key problem is really all about the erosion of consumer trust and confidence. This is not necessarily a rational process; trust is a very hard thing to build and an easy thing to lose. And that loss of trust is not going to help the future profits of either the food manufacturers who are caught up in this scandal or the retailers who have been selling these products.

But should we be surprised at this revelation?

Food costs have been decreasing in real terms over the last decade or so. Retailers have done an excellent job of training consumers to buy on price, so they do. Food manufacturers must look for and deliver these cost savings but food cannot continue to get cheaper infinitely. Simple economics mean that there are only so many process efficiencies that can be made through the supply chain. The raw ingredients must be paid for at some point and it can be a very easy solution to source a lower quality for a cheaper price.

Rebuilding consumer confidence

So we are where we are, as they say, but now we need to move on and rebuild our businesses and consumer confidence. The question is where do we start and what do we do? First and foremost the issue of regaining trust must be addressed because without this we do not have a market. Government and other public bodies have a huge role to play here in this, but every company throughout the supply chain must also play its  part. There also needs to be a better transparent and auditable system for monitoring the transit of product throughout the supply chain. Clearly this does not work at the moment.

Once we get over the fact that consumers have been  eating horse meat and that legally and morally that is wrong when the packaging clearly indicated beef, there is perhaps an opportunity here. No-one complained that these products tasted different and we are assured that the meat was fine for human consumption. So over and above our understandable concerns, what is actually wrong about eating horse meat? Other countries do! And it appears that in processed food the taste is perfectly palatable. Perhaps when this scandal is over, we can introduce a new meat into our diet which can mean that we can have both cheaper and nutritious meals. But please let's make sure that the packs are labelled correctly and so consumers know exactly what they are eating. Which brings us full circle back to the  issue of trust…


As the newly appointed Professor of Retail Innovation at Leeds Metropolitan University, Professor Cathy Barnes is responsible for leading and building the new Faraday Centre for Retail Excellence. Her vision is to create a new type of university institute where academics, funding bodies and industry work closely together to deliver new knowledge with real and immediate commercial impact. She would like the Faraday Centre for Retail Excellence to be seen as a major force in driving innovation and impact to UK plc and beyond.

Cathy is fascinated by the world of the consumer. She is constantly trying to understand how we, as people, interact with the world around us and what this means to improved products and daily experiences.  Her research work has taken her on a journey from novel ideation techniques such as biomimetics (using nature to innovate) to sensory design. She is particularly interested in how we perceive the world through touch and what this means to why we buy products.

Originally training as a draughtsperson, Cathy started her diverse career in engineering, working on nuclear submarines. After a first degree in Mechanical Engineering, she started her love affair with consumerism by 6 years in industry managing factories making everything from cosmetics to crisp packets. Prior to joining Leeds Metropolitan University she spent 12 years at University of Leeds researching into the consumer experience and managing outreach departments working closely with industry. During this time she led many research grants and has published widely in both academic journals and the trade press.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Leeds Metropolitan University or Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

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Cathy Barnes


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