Suddenly we’re all shocked that value burgers, lasagne and other processed food products in the UK have something other than beef in them. It’s 23 years since the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scandal, when it suddenly came to our collective conciousness that perhaps cows didn’t live long and happy lives out in fields and eat grass. As a nation (and lets not pretend this wasn’t happening in other part of Europe but Brits are sticklers for upholding the law) we had become so disassociated from the way animals for food were reared that a whole industry, with its focus on delivering cheap meat to consumers and maximum profits to shareholders, that it was an enormous shock to most people that vegetarian cattle were being fed other species ground up in meal, to enable them to put on the pounds of lean protein we demanded. The age of innocence was over it seemed.
So, over two decades on, how has it now come to pass that our food chain is more obfuscated and opaque than ever and on the faces of all politicians and industry representatives there is the look of mock surprise? Genuine surprise, or a feeling of being completely let down is the response of many consumers, finger waving and moralising from others (often those with bigger budgets). As food writer Trish Deseine says:
For me, the collective, vicious circle of obsession, illusion and denial is well and truly exposed and exploded and there’s no going back. Read more here.
In these straightened times, when there is food in seeming abundance (so much so that millions of tons of it ends up in landfill), ordinary families are often faced with difficult choices.
Jules from Butcher, Baker blog sums it up:
Imagine this: you have a family to support, you work every hour under the sun to put food on the table. You can’t shop at the butchers as they are only open when you are at work (my local butcher only opens 10-3 Monday – Friday). You don’t own a car due to rising petrol prices so the supermarket a short walk away is only option. With the cost of domestic fuel rising dinner needs to be quick to cook, you can’t afford to have the oven on for an hour or two cooking a delicious home-cooked meal from a frugal yet tough piece of meat. At the supermarket you have a choice: 4 x £1 value lasagne that cooks quickly in the microwave or £6 worth of ingredients that means you are 90min away from a meal. You know you are compromising on taste and quality but remember food is now fuel.
Don’t believe the Daily Fail hype that people living like this don’t exist. They do. I work with children and families who are just like this. They are not scroungers or people wasting money on frivolous things like Sky and XBox, they are struggling to make ends meet let alone eat. Read more here.
Joanna Blythman makes this point:
The very essence of food processing is taking apart natural foods and reinventing them in a value-added form that is more lucrative for their makers. The horsemeat fiasco has merely provided us with a snapshot of just how under-policed, and liable to fraud and adulteration, manufactured ready meals and processed meat products really are. Read more here.
I don’t believe that providing people with safe, nourishing food should be left solely to the vagaries of market forces (voluntary pledges and commodity trading). The industrialisation of farming in agriculture and animals (including the failed promises and potential catastrophe of GM crops) and the pervasive spread of increasingly processed foods in the hands of fewer and more powerful corporations and retailers is one of the most sinister threats of our age. So what can we do?
Sarah Emily Duff, author of Tangerine and Cinnamon explains:
Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.
But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably. Read more here.
Like most consumers, I make difficult choices every day when shopping for food, with the added complication that I live in a country where most of it has to be imported. We eat meat once or twice a week, in small quantities and I do my best to ensure it comes from the best source possible (and budget permitting). Spinneys now label some of their beef as grass-fed, Prime Gourmet also sell grass-fed beef, but my preferred choice is Carrefour as they stock OBE organic beef. The OBE group unites family farms in the Channel Country of Australia, these cattle have been free-range for generations and they are left to graze on a range of 250 types of grasses, herbs and plants that grow naturally. I met with some of the people who run OBE a year ago and a planned short chat turned into over an hour where we talked about everything from the cows seeking out medicinal herbs when they were sick to the way they form family groups.
Some time ago I was given some of the meat to try. It comes in a range of cuts and is mid-price range (for Dubai). I cooked several meals and the meat tasted very good. I was going to give you a range of recipes and some nice pictures of the finished dishes (and will do in the future). But in the context of the last two weeks, I feel there are more important points to make. I don’t pretend that the whole answer is to just change our shopping habits, but it’s the only area where most of us have any impact.
If you are in Dubai, OBE is at Gulfood, a large food industry exhibition, 25th-28th February 2013 if you are visiting and want to know more. It’s a rare opportunity to talk direct to the producers of our meat – which, if we’d done more of, might have helped shape a better future where we could rely on food to be safe and nutritious and not at the expense of animal welfare or our environment.
Wherever you live, what choices do you face and decision do you make about food provenance, meat in particular?
Postscript: Three new articles appeared just as I posted this. Very well worth a read:
Horse meat – The hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault (The Making Progress Blues)
Meat-free every day (The English Can Cook aka Ms Marmite Lover)
‘everymeat’ bolognese (The Riverford blog)