Why we’re all complicit in food scandals

Posted: February 23, 2013 in Food
Tags: , , , , ,

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Our food supply, that is. It’s so mislabeled, adulterated and tainted it’s a joke – except this is no laughing matter.

How did we get into t7740699350_d1548b91a7_zhis position? Why do we allow this nonsense to continue? Who’s to blame and who’s going to fix things?

The scandal of horsemeat being sold as beef in Europe isn’t confined to one or two dodgy deals. It’s not just horsemeat. And it’s not just Europe. This is the dark side of business; highly profitable, sometimes illegal and poorly policed.

It’s where vested interests steer government policy, where political ideology insists on “light touch” regulation, where ‘red tape’ has been cut along with burdensome tests and inspections.

It’s where the industry insists it can police itself and it’s why in the UK watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has had its budget slashed and the number of inspectors has fallen.

The agency’s former CEO Tim Smith – now at supermarket chain Tesco – said in his final annual report that the FSA had saved almost a quarter of its previous year’s budget and further cuts of a third would follow.

We’ve naively bought into the idea that government agencies are protecting our backs but they aren’t. They’ve been emasculated.

Horsemeat is only the latest in a long line of food scandals to affect the UK. Twenty-or-so years ago it took the BSE scandal (commonly known as mad cow disease) for us to learn about the practice of diseased cattle being ground up and fed back to healthy animals.

When fears arose that the disease of the cows’ nervous system could pass into humans millions of cattle were incinerated in vast pyres. Images went around the world, the tragic end result of the folly and greed in our food chain.

In recent times we’ve had:

  • imported Italian wines laced with ethylene glycol (more commonly found in windscreen wiper fluids)
  • hydrolised protein injected into chicken (leaving residues of beef or pork)
  • dioxin in mozzarella (said to have been caused by illegal waste dumping by Naples gangsters)

Go back to the days of Charles Dickens and there are stories of bread being laced with chalk, alum and even ashes and bonemeal.

The chicanery persists in all kinds of areas. Have you bought good olive oil recently, or at least what you thought was good olive oil? There’s lots of reassuring imagery on the shelves, bottles with Italian-sounding names, tricolor flags, extra virgin labeling and overtures about natural goodness.

There’s no mention of it being tankered around like crude oil, or cut with cheaper, undetectable seed and nut oils – or worse. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

How about fish? The fashionable sushi bars and restaurants aren’t necessarily giving you what you’ve paid for. A recent survey by ocean protection group Oceana found 28 different species of fish in 120 samples they took from products labeled red snapper. Seventeen of those weren’t even in the snapper family. Full story at the New York Times.

Corners are being cut everywhere, in the worst cases by out-and-out criminality and in others, more surreptitiously, by food scientists and marketers seeking to pare costs to the bone to maximize profits.

In the current crisis I’ve seen any number of misguided comments about how there’s nothing wrong with eating horse anyway. How the response has been hysterical because of the relationship humans have with horses. It’s not as if eating them poses a risk to health; the French have been eating them for ages, and we eat cows, pigs and sheep, so what’s the beef, so to speak?

That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about trust and integrity and allowing consumers to make informed choices about what they’re paying for. If it’s labeled as horse and sold as horse then fine, otherwise it simply shouldn’t be there.

We trust supermarkets to honor their bond with customers (the best ones do), to ensure that the producers and suppliers they use give us what we pay for, without adulteration.

We also idealize about organic, cruelty-free, food that fits our idea of pastoral harmony, where man is in balance with nature, where animals live happy lives and where farmers manage the land as custodians for the future.

Above all though, we want all this to be cheap. Not cheap and nasty, but cheap and valued or, as Americans say, inexpensive.

That’s the dilemma we have to face and the one supermarkets have to overcome. We endorse the best practices for food production but we can’t, or don’t want to, swallow the price tag that comes with them.

Not everyone can do their shopping at high-end organic stores, or buy heirloom this and hand-dived that from farmer’s markets, but as consumers we have a power that can be exercised every time we shop. We have the power to change the status quo and the power to change what appears on the supermarket shelves.

Every purchase we make is a casting vote that registers approval of a product, an acceptance of the air miles, or the husbandry, or the out-of-seasonality that puts it on the shelf.

And every purchase is logged and recorded by the store, signaling to them that they’re getting it right, that they’re delivering a product – at a price – that consumers want and that is earning its keep on the shelves.

Until we accept that some things need to be reassuringly expensive, that we’re prepared to pay for quality – even if that means we eat something less often – and that the choices we make really matter, then the next food scandal will be just around the corner. And we’ll all be complicit in it.

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