I try and avoid supermarkets, I try and avoid shopping in general. But supermarkets, for some reason, evoke an irrational anger in me. It's the whole thing, starting with the car park. Someone is probably paid a full time wage to design supermarket car parks...I hope it's a meagre one. Parking is always a chore, then you can't get the trolley because you haven't got a pound coin to release the thief-deterrent padlock chaining it to all the others. There is always someone who makes it their life purpose to keep you behind them whilst they move at the slowest pace possible. The whole affair is a process I dislike a great deal. This week however I did go to the supermarket...one of the worst ones in fact. Tesco...
I went to Tesco on a fact finding mission. I had heard that following last years 'voluntary code of conduct' that milk processors signed up to, Tesco was now selling 4 pints of milk for £1, down by 39p. That's 25p per pint! This is absurd! I fail to understand why...why oh why do they (supermarkets in general, because it's not just Tesco) feel the need to do it? It's been all over the news, the general public knows dairy farmers are struggling. There was the blockades, and the marches, and the sums on the news showing how hard it is to make a profit. However it all now seems pointless, because those protests and campaigns weren't just simply about getting more money for the farmer, they were about adding value to a product that they felt passionate about producing. A product which, no sooner has it hit the shelves, is then devalued by selling it at a price similar to that of the cost of production.
It's not just milk though, it was no surprise when the horse meat scandal was uncovered. It makes total sense really. It cannot be feasibly possible to produce an entire portion of lasagne and get it onto the shelf, packaged, for £1...think about it, the packaging, the meat, the pasta sheets, other ingredients. Not to mention the labour, transport and legislative costs that manufacturing a ready meal bears with it. As a livestock producer it has left me scratching my head wondering how on earth it was achievable. Now though it's obvious. Like drug dealers making their consignments of cocaine go further on the street, they cut the main ingredient, the beef, with a low cost alternative such as horse meat, which drastically cuts the production costs and increases margins. Then this week I was reminded of a story that first emerged some 5 years ago, that Halal and Kosher meat is finding its way into the food chain, without any requirement for consumer notification. Now this isn't a health and safety, or an environmental issue, but if you know about the Halal and Kosher methods of slaughter, then you may well want to be informed and exercise your consumer right to steer clear of it. We are fortunate to live in a country where wide ranges of religions, cultures and beliefs are encouraged and respected. However I cant say I agree with these methods in the slightest. I do respect the historical reasons as to why they exist though. If you're really interested in finding out more, then there are videos of these slaughter processes on the internet. However I warn you now they do not make for easy viewing for those even with the hardest of hearts. So again, where these choices are added into the mix, the supply chain becomes more complex, which in turn adds a cost, and as such it does not surprise me in the slightest that Halal and Kosher meat is working its way into the food chain, especially with the lack of requirement of labelling information surrounding it.
With this in mind, is there really cause to complain when we find out this information? After all, it is the consumer who is buying this produce, and creating the demand for it. Fortunately, there is an alternative (shameless plug coming up!) It is completely fair to say that the only way you can be entirely sure of the background of the animal and its path to becoming fresh meat is by buying from the small scale producers, who you know and trust. We know exactly where it has been slaughtered, butchered and packaged before coming back to us for sale. However for every person who wants that service, there are probably 50 who just want to get as much for their money as they possibly can, and I can't say I blame them. We all do it, whether it's insurance, utility bills, petrol, or groceries. We all want to get the best price possible. What you decide to pay more for depends on the values you hold and what matters to you as a consumer.
So whilst every time this information on horsemeat or Halal and Kosher meat comes to light, and there is a public outcry, it does not mean that the situation has been ended. It just means the large scale manufacturers or processors, or even supermarkets are finding their way around it. In short, it'll never stop, it will just evolve.
It has been a busy period recently, with the annual testing of every cow on the farm for Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB). It’s hard to escape the issue of bTB over recent months, particularly due to the relationship that the infectious disease has with badgers, and the methods being employed to try and control the spread of it.
Currently the country is divided into three areas, or zones. Each area is faced with a different level of controls and restrictions surrounding the movement of cattle and the approach taken in testing for the disease. The South West is a ‘High Risk’ area. In 2012, there were 3,941 new cases of bTB in herds across England. 70% of these cases were confined to the South West corner of the country. Eastern and Northern parts of the country are low risk areas, and have less restrictions imposed on cattle farmers, however here in the Chilterns, we are farming in ‘the edge’ where bTB is concerned.
On an annual basis, the vet makes a visit armed with a list of every cow registered on the premises. Each cow is identified by ear tag numbers and injected with a sterile version of the disease, completely safe and controlled. The cows immune system responds to the presence of the bacteria and causes a localised allergic reaction (swelling) of the skin a few days afterwards. Crucially, the cows are also injected with a second strain of bacteria as a control. Both sites are measured after a few days to determine the scale of the swelling, and give an indication as to whether the cow potentially has bTB. Fortunately we are clear of bTB here at Buckmoorend Farm, however we operate a ‘closed herd’, meaning that nearly every animal sold off the farm is born, reared and finished right here. Some agricultural businesses have a system based on buying young cows in, fattening them and then selling them at finished weight. The bTB measures have a serious impact on these farms.
Another, more technological issue facing agricultural businesses these days is connectivity, of the world wide web variety. Rural broadband is another topic that flutters in and out of the news, with little regard to how and why it affects people. The internet is fast becoming a fundamental resource in the running of a business of any size. In October 2013, researchers Akamai found the average user in South Korea achieves broadband speeds of 13.3mbps. In Latvia it’s 10.6mbps, and in Czech Republic it’s 9.8mbps. Closer to home, here in the UK we languish behind with a paltry 8.4mbps…I would LOVE 8.4mbps. I am consistently presented with adverts in newspapers, on television and on the radio of the fastest athlete in the world telling me to ‘live life in the fast lane’, however as I sit here and type, I also have open in my browser BT’s speed test website, and it tells me I am currently running at 0.8mbps…
Now I realise this is a first world problem. I have clean running water from the tap, I have heating and 3 square meals every day. However the serious element to this is that broadband speeds have a direct impact on economic growth of a country. It’s why the government announced in July 2013 on extending superfast broadband to 95% of premises by 2017. It’s worth noting at this point that ‘super fast’ broadband speeds are defined as 24mbps and above. My problem with broadband though isn’t the infrastructure in place. We live in a world where technology is moving and improving by the millisecond. A computer is out of date the second you walk out of the shop (or have it delivered…if you trust your connection enough to shop online) and I understand that by the time the ‘super fast’ cables are rolled out, they will most likely be out of date. Not to mention it costs money to do all this. No, my issue is with the cheating service providers, who lock you in with the promise of new routers, free calls and improved speeds, before abandoning you and hiding behind a labyrinth of call departments. It pains me to say, I am a victim of such a crime.
In November 2013, I received a call from EE (Everything Everywhere, or as Mrs H says, 'they should really be called Nothing Nowhere.' I point out that this wouldn’t work with the abbreviation. We still debate the subject). The enthusiastic salesman told me we were out of contract, and if I switched line rental to EE along with unlimited broadband we would get everything for a fixed price, along with some new equipment and line optimisation. ‘Sounds like a great deal’ (it was) ‘however, I am particularly keen to improve my broadband speed. I will agree a 12 month contract with you, on the condition that you can improve my broadband speed.’ The salesman, who I shall call Eddie, asked for my postcode, took some details, then placed me on hold for a few moments. ‘Well Mr Hares, your phone line can support speeds between 1 and 3mbps’, said Eddie. ‘Well Eddie, currently I am getting 0.8mbps, if you can promise me you can boost the average download speed to AT LEAST 1.0mbps (I am not fussy) then we have an agreement.' ‘Great,’ said Eddie, ‘we’ll get your new modem out to you and the process of switching should take 5 - 6 weeks.’
I was like a child at Christmas. I had a broadband calendar upon which I marked each day until the 5 - 6 weeks had passed. I wondered how the speed boost was going to work. Was the phone line going to glitter and hum on the day as super fast lightning bolts were passed through it, improving its capacity and capabilities? Nearing the day, the new modem arrived, and then shortly afterwards a letter to say EE now had me under their wing. I was part of the EE family, and they were happy to have me on board. This was all great marketing, however did my broadband speeds increase? No they did not. But I had faith in Eddie. I was sure I must’ve been maybe second or third in his pile of customers to send the broadband nanobots to, and he would get round to it, so I gave it another couple of weeks. Alas, the speed never came. And so, on 16 December, I embarked on a journey with EE. I ignored every British bone in my body urging me to ‘make do and mend’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ and I phoned the technical services department to inform them of their oversight in this matter. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was very understanding. We tried a new filter which had arrived with the modem, he took me through some of the advanced set-up options and he made some adjustments from his computer in wherever-he-was. Sure enough the speed crept up to 1.09mbps. Hurrah! I dreamt of Netflix and LoveFilm subscriptions. I couldn’t wait to watch you tube videos and iPlayer. Then, no sooner had I hung up the phone than it dropped again, back to 0.8mbps. I then made my first grave error.
Due to the proximity to Christmas, I left it for a while. I decided that I would wait until after Christmas to call them back. However I was resolute in my position, if EE did not get my speeds increased immediately, I wanted out of my 12 month contract without penalty. It was 3rd January before I engaged EE in dialogue again. I spent 41 minutes and 11 seconds on the phone to the technical services department. Apparently, they have the right to a 30 day window in which to fix the problem. Fair enough I agreed, I originally made this complaint on 16 December, so assumed it would be 30 days from then, however I was kindly informed that because I hadn’t phoned within 9 days of the original complaint, they assumed it was sorted, and the procedure starts over. In short, the 30 day window starts again. ‘It’s all there in the contract,’ they said…of course it is. So I phoned and phoned, on 9th January for 49 minutes, on 15 January for 11 minutes, on 23 January twice for 34 minutes and 15 minutes. This phone call actually resulted in a visit from an engineer. A lovely guy, but who was contracted for TalkTalk. Unfortunately his hands were tied - he agreed that the speed should be faster, but he had no real capability to do much, because he didn’t really work for EE, and was slightly perplexed himself as to why he had been sub contracted to the job. I phoned EE again on 28 January, for 20 minutes, and then 2 days later, on 30 January, I finally started to see some fruits to my labour. I was now bypassing technical services, and figuring out how to have my call escalated to speak to someone who sounded like they may be in a position to actually have something constructive to say. The 30th January was no exception, and I finally managed to have the senior customer services advisor agree with me - that I was promised something that EE could not provide…I had been mis-sold. I was now entering a new realm of procedures. The mis-selling department were surely the top of the tree. They explained that they would have to investigate the phone call when the verbal agreement was made (I had the time and date so that should be easy). This would take a period of 10 days.
I phoned once in the interim period, and was told that my complaint was still being looked into. I then phoned again after the 10 day period, because despite my optimism that I would be duly contacted, I was not. It was at this juncture that I was informed of a problem. EE were receiving SO MANY complaints that they had increased the period that they were allowed to investigate the mis-sell to 21 days (this is in the Terms and Conditions too, which were available to view on the website…I was losing the will to live). I wanted to establish the position I was in ‘Is that 21 days since I first made the mis-selling complaint, or 21 days from now?’ ‘From the initial complaint,’ I was assured. I don’t know why I bothered asking in hindsight, it had stopped meaning anything to me now. And so, on 22 February, I made my final phone call. There was still a small tiny teeny part of me that expected them to say that they’d investigated my agreement with Eddie, that I had indeed been mis-sold, and they would release me from the evil clutches of a 12 month contract without penalty. In fact what happened pretty much destroyed my faith in customer service for ever more.
I was informed that my complaint had not been upheld, on the grounds that there was nothing to complain about. They were providing me with an internet service on a package that I had agreed to. ‘Yes but I am not getting the speed I was promised during the phone call I had with Eddie,’ I gently tried explaining. ‘Well that sounds like a fault,’ came the reply, ‘would you like to be transferred to our technical services department?’ I was dumbfounded at this point. I commented that I had been through this already, many, many times, however I was told that I first contacted EE technical services about the technical fault on 3rd January, and I stopped contacting them on the 30th of January. This meant that, in their view, the problem had been solved within the crucial 30 day window. As there was no technical fault, there was no mis-selling complaint to investigate.
The question was repeated to me ‘would you like to be put through to technical services?’