Standing up for retailers doesn’t necessarily win you any friends, says Malcolm Walker.
Nearly two months have passed since my “Ratner moment” in the media, and amazingly I still seem to be in a job. At times like these, being the largest shareholder in the company probably helps.
Why on Earth did I do it? I don’t normally rush to do TV interviews because Iceland isn’t a public company and I’m not on any personal ego trip. It seems better simply to get on with the job of delivering great value, quality and service to our customers, with the support of some of the happiest employees in the country – as the annual Best Companies survey proves.
But I decided to step up to the plate at a time when the Government was urging retailers to explain themselves. The problem was that they only wanted to hear from those who were willing to follow their script and say how sorry we were for having let everyone down.
But I didn’t think we had. As I said back in February, UK food retailers’ standards of traceability and quality control are the best in the world. The fact that some criminal gangs managed to by-pass them and sneak horse meat onto the market in place of beef made victims of retailers as well as consumers.
It is a simple fact that no one can test every product for everything. So every processor and retailer conducts risk-based tests looking, amongst other things, for possible cross contamination.
Looking for horse DNA requires a specific test that no one in the UK Government ever suggested that we needed to do until after the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found evidence of contamination.
That’s what happens when 90 minutes of aggressive questioning on camera gets boiled down to 90 seconds on TV.
I also knew that I would win no friends by pointing out that school and hospital meals don’t come with the list of ingredients that you will find on the back of every retail pack, or that in my experience of the foodservice industry the main thing driving public sector purchasing decisions is price.
The subsequent widening of the horse meat scandal to affect everyone from pubs and restaurants to school caterers simply underlines my point that the Government was wrong to present their response as being all about calling the big retailers into the headmaster’s study and giving them a proper ticking off.
Whatever some publicity-hungry MPs might like to suggest, food retailers are not in the business of misleading or defrauding the public. Any retailer that loses the trust of its customers has no future, and no one in their right mind would put that at risk by cutting corners.
Which is why I am confident that customers can go on trusting British supermarkets to keep aiming for the highest standards and doing their very best to bring them decent food at prices they can afford.