Disserving the Public


My eye was caught by a newspaper item during the week, a report on a court case taken by Trading Standards Service officers against the Garrick Bar in Belfast. In May last year the officers - who are allowed to pretend to drink on duty, which is pretty cool - ordered Smirnoff vodkas from the bar. Using an authenticity kit they tested the vodkas and discovered that they weren't Smirnoffs at all but a cheaper brand. They searched the premises and discovered that another half bottle labelled Smirnoff was not the genuine brand.

The owners were fined a total of £3,000, plus costs. To me they got off lightly. The profit margin on alcohol for publicans is fairly wide and they should reward the loyalty of their patrons not by ripping them off but by being honest with them. The Trading Standards officers visited approximately fifteen other premises in the greater Belfast area and further prosecutions are pending, though the office was unable to tell me the suspected substitute rate. A report two years ago stated that illegal spirits substitution was believed to occur in one in twelve outlets (hopefully, excluding the eleven bars I drink in).

As a teenager I worked in various pubs around town and witnessed all the moves, all the scams. Of course there was malpractice from the management or owners, tipping cheaper spirits into branded spirit bottles, and often watering down branded spirits (only a drinker of straight shorts could spot this deception). Having said that, in one particularly rough bar, the slops from the spirit measuring tray, a mix of usually navy rum and Mundies, were kept and poured into the cheap porter which turned it into rocket fuel. But, at least, that's what the hardened old boys wanted first thing in the mornings and they knew that's what they were getting. The owner of these premises, the Hayloft Bar, could've been done with selling over-proof stout to over-age drinkers.

When I worked in a butcher's shop (before my bar days) there were regulations on how much spice, meal or preservative you were allowed to use in vegetable roll, sausages or mince. These regulations, aimed at protecting the consumer, were enforced by inspectors who could swoop on a premises without notice, take samples and run tests. Quite rightly, too.

But despite all the improvements and the raised awareness about consumer safety it is an uphill battle against rogue traders. I don't know if any of you saw the video footage shot by public health officials when they raided a warehouse in the English midlands and which was broadcast just two days before Christmas last. If so, I'm sure you felt sick to the pit of your stomach.

Five meat industry executives - gangsters, in reality - had bought up rotten petfood meat, and using chemicals had removed the dye identifying the chickens and turkeys as unfit for human consumption. They employed a team to slice through mould, slime and faeces, removed scraps of pink meat, rinse it in salt water and repackaged it to sell to restaurants and supermarkets. It is believed that the meat made its way into schools, hospitals and residential homes.

Over a three-year period they made £2.5m by hoarding 1,300 tons of rotten chicken and turkey. They were jailed for a total of 24 years. They should have been made to eat their own stinking food for duping the public, particularly poor people who shopped at the low-cost supermarkets they targeted.

Obviously, the public needs the protection of statutory bodies.

On the other hand, members of the public will also exercise their right to shop around for a variety and quality of goods that fall within a range of what they can afford. Everyone knows that the North is one black-market where you can buy cheap cigarettes, alcohol and diesel. People go to flea markets to buy counterfeit CDs or cut-price, look-alike, brand-label consumer goods, without a care for copyright or the affect on local business and jobs. Yet, the producers who condemn this practice which undercuts their trade are the same ones who underpay their employees for their labour and overprice their wares to maximise profits. This is capitalism for you. It is the dominating, double-standard, hypocritical culture we have inherited, adapted to, modified, and which generally has made us cynical of government and of society as a whole.

Everyone seeks to cut costs. There are legitimate short-cuts, illegal short-cuts and dangerous, criminal short-cuts (as in feeding people carrion). Business people and the self-employed will look for the shrewdest accountants to find the loopholes to minimise or avoid paying their taxes. Out of six passengers on a bus which breaks when it runs over a mouse, twenty-four passengers will be found to be suffering from whiplash. Who hasn't done the double, or not bought a TV licence?

- This is Ester Rantzon, heading out, but not to the Garrick, for a wee Smurf. Next week I am thinking of writing about bouncers, and would like, in particular, to thank those two baldy men with the earpieces who helped this old boy into a taxi outside a well-known hostelry last Friday night. I got home okay, on Sunday.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison