This post is also available in: Japanese
I used to be able to horrify my British friends by telling them that I have eaten bazashi (horse sashimi) in Japan – they could not believe that I would happily eat horse, and eat it raw. British reactions, however, to the discovery that many readymade burgers and lasagne bought in supermarkets contain horsemeat rather than 100% beef was more about the fear of not knowing what is in our food, rather than disgust at the idea of having inadvertently eaten horse.
Although we don’t eat horsemeat in the UK, we are aware that many of our European neighbours do, and are not as repulsed by the idea as we used to be. What we find really troubling this time is that the supply chains for the food we buy have become so complex that we cannot be sure exactly what the ingredients are and where they have come from.
The British middle classes have become far more interested in good quality, locally sourced food this past decade. Our TV schedules are full of cookery programmes – not quite as many as Japan perhaps – and our restaurants have improved tremendously. Italians and French are famously obsessed by the seasonality and quality of food – but they too have been affected by the horsemeat contamination scandal. In fact the supply chains involved in the scandal seem to go through almost every country in the EU, from the Netherlands to Romania.
Many commentators lay the blame on lower income consumers’ desire to buy food as cheaply as possible, particularly in the current economic climate. The fierce price competition between supermarkets has led to pressures being applied right through the supply chain, and corners being cut in terms of quality checks. Supermarkets have, rightly, refrained from defending themselves by saying they were only trying to provide what consumers want or by blaming suppliers. They realise even the poorest consumer is placing trust in their brand, and does not want to be tricked. So they are taking steps to cut out middlemen between them and the farmers, or to bring meat processing back in house.
Some commentators have pointed out that there are parallels with the US car industry in the 1980s. American car firms were competing on price, so forced their suppliers to cut prices, with a consequent drop in quality. This enabled Japanese car firms, who worked far more collaboratively with their suppliers, to produce high quality vehicles, at reasonable prices, to take market share.
When Japanese car companies entered Europe, they made sure their supply chain followed them in setting up in Europe, or that local suppliers worked as closely with them as their suppliers would in Japan. Japanese car companies have recognised the importance of the brand – it is not just promoting a logo, but whole ethos of responsibility to the customer.
Notably, when there are quality problems, Japanese car firms act as the public face to the customer, apologising and implementing product recalls. The root cause may be a supplier defect, but the supplier is not publicly named. The brand owner takes responsibility for the whole supply chain, and customers do not want to hear the blame being pushed onto someone else.
Japan has had its own food contamination scandals, but on balance, I believe Japanese companies manage their supply chains very well. The test will be how the next wave of Japanese companies in customer facing industries such as retail, airlines and food, who are trying to become global brands, and often buy up European brands in order to do so, will be able to replicate their trusted supply chains successfully in Europe. The beef contamination scandal has put European customers on the alert.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News, March 13th, 2013
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