Wednesday, 16 January 2013

I'll horsewhip anyone who nags about food quality

It was always a question as to whether it has been to any avail for me to shout myself hoarse about the awfulness of the dominance of our grocery retail sector by supermarkets.

But then the news broke last night about the discovery of pig and horse DNA in some ‘beef’ burgers provides the perfect chance to do so again, and the subsequent mass whinneying on the matter makes me think I was right all along.

‘Neigh, neigh and thrice neigh,’ I hear you cry.

Ah, but yes, yes, yes, missus!

In the UK at least, the big headlines concern the discovery, by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), that 37% of ‘beef’ burgers that had been analysed by the authority had horse DNA in them.

We Brits can be very sentimental about our four-legged friends. The country might see vast amounts of cruelty and neglect against animals every year, but we do like to think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, and obviously superior to the likes of the French, who eat, err, horse.

On this side of the Channel, we include horses within the special pantheon of ‘the paw ones’* that we consider to be beyond use on the plate.

Which animals you eat and which you don’t is almost entirely cultural, of course. Although that’s not to decry that – personally, I have absolutely no desire to eat dog and I most certainly could not eat cat: precisely because, for me at any rate, they’re family, for goodness sake, so it would be close to cannibalism.

Horse meat? Well, I’ve not had the chance, but wouldn’t mind trying. Then again, the last encounter I had with a nag was on the Isle of Skye some years ago when, on the first opportunity I’d ever had to try riding, it threw me and I ended up seeing stars and with a fantastically bruised hip and thigh.

So you’ll excuse me if I don’t feel any great sentimental tenderness toward horses and would quite probably be prepared to tuck into one with interest if nothing else.

But let’s get back to the facts of the case.

Setting aside the finding on horse DNA, the bigger point is actually that 85% of the products tested by the FSAI contained pig DNA.

The burgers were produced by Irish processors Liffey Meats – perhaps a rebranding as Iffey Meats might be more apt? – and Silvercrest Foods, together with Dalepak Hambleton on this side of the Irish Sea.

According to The Grocerof the 10 ‘beef’ burgers that tested positive for traces of horse DNA, the Tesco Everyday Value ones won by a length with 29.1%, while in second came Oakhurst burgers, sold at Aldi and containing a rather pitiful 0.3%. Tesco all the way.

A selection of 31 other beef meal products that were tested – such delights as lasagne and cottage pie – revealed 68% showing pig DNA.

One possible reason for the presence of pig DNA is that meat from both pigs and cattle was tested in the same plants – but that’s a big level of contamination. And the FSAI doesn’t even bother to suggest a comparable explanation for the presence of horse DNA.

The stores, of course, are obviously dismayed. Tesco alone saw its share value hit badly today. So the upset is genuine.

The Grocer reported Tesco “technical director, ex-FSA CEO Tim Smith”, as saying: “The safety and quality of our food is of the highest importance to Tesco. We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell.”

Now, briefly at least, let’s trot off on a bit of a diversion. Did you spot something in that last paragraph, by any chance? Y’know, the bit where The Grocer described Tesco’s technical director as the former boss of the Food Standards Agency?

A few months ago, I read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, about the pharmaceutical industry. It’s frankly a rather frightening read, in a lot of ways – but very much worth the effort in the interests of self-education.

Anyway, one of the points that Goldacre raises is that of the relationships between the industry and the regulators. This is partly a result, he notes, of quite low wages for regulators, many of whom develop decent relationships with the companies they’re supposed to be regulating – and then move to jobs at those companies, where the pay tends to be considerably better.

Are the links between big food and the food regulators in a similarly confused state? I leave that one with you.

Anyway, back to the burgers scandal.

Of the 10 burgers that tested positive for horse DNA, three were sold by Lidl, two by Tesco, two by Iceland, two by Dunnes Stores and one by Aldi. The ones that oinked if you listened carefully were available in Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, Supervalu, Dunnes Stores, Spar, Centra, FXB Butchers and Superquinn.

So what we can conclude fairly safely is that the products in question were from cut-price ranges or were sold at cut-price stores.

And it seems unlikely that the FSAI was lucky enough to test the only batch that was affected.

There will, doubtless, be investigations over the coming days, weeks and months, so we can hope to discover how it actually happened. Although it equally seems plausible to suggest that, somewhere along the line in the whole process, was the use of horse and pig meat vital to keep the costs to the levels demanded?

But what we’re left to consider at the moment is whether, beyond sentiment and any concerns among some religious people who want to avoid eating pork, there any harm in what has happened?

Well, it’s doubtful that anyone’s going to die as a result of it.

However, it raises a number of questions about what really does happen in the most industrialised end of the processed food industry – most particularly where the aim is to keep costs as low as possible.

There are already questions that need asking about genetically modified (GM) products entering the food chain via feed for food animals – in the EU, this is acceptable, even though selling GM foods for humans is not.

There’s a great deal of news around about GM, from suicides by Indian farmers who have been persuaded to go down the GM route and found it to be a catastrophe, to scientific work raising some very major questions about the safety of assorted GM products, but while these rarely make it into the mainstream media, it is not a peripheral question.

Not unlinked are issues of food security and sustainability.

And then there’s another thing: how do people on low incomes in particular get a decent diet that doesn’t involve the cheapest possible food that many have been produced in a dubious manner and contain ingredients not only of dubious origin but also of dubious impact on health.

This actually butts into the entire issue of rising obesity rates.

It’s been pointed out before that, in the UK, households spend, on average, 10% less on food over a year than their Continental counterparts, yet we hear constant complaints about the cost of food.

A number of things occur.

• Do we have a negative cultural attitude toward food in general, whereby we regard it simply as fuel and expect it to be cheaper than it needs to be to be of decent quality?

• Is the proportion of income spent on food a direct correlation of the extremely high cost of housing (whether rented or otherwise) in the UK as opposed to the Continent?

• Do we care – or not – about what people on low incomes eat? Is it an issue at all? After all, they’re poor aren’t they and, in a world of ‘skivers v strivers’, it’s almost certainly their own fault?

• Is a negative attitude toward the profiteering highly successful food producers and retailers an illustration of envy and should we in fact applaud anything that they do that enables poor people to afford any food at all?

• Should we view GM produce in the same light? After all, it’s going to feed the world isn’t it, so if one particular form of genetically-altered wheat did cause liver failure, they’d have died of starvation anyway.

There are a few things to think about – and I haven’t even mentioned that if you read the ingredients on a packet, then you should fairly expect that that is exactly what the product contains. Anything else is a lie, somewhere along the line.

Gee (gee) – are you all wound up yet?

If you are, then there’s a relatively simple answer. Simple at least i you have the choice – and many do not – to shop at local, independent shops, where you will have a greater opportunity of being able to check the provenance of a product.

To remove the risk factor, you remove as much processing from the equation as possible.

If you can buy meat direct from farmers, for instance, you can talk to them about feed and GM.

If you don’t care, then obviously that’s fine too. That’s your choice.

But it’s an easier choice than those who do care have. I’m one of the lucky one. I have the likes of Matthew and Henry and Richard – and various others from whom I can buy meat that I consider trustworthy. And I’m very grateful to be in that position, which includes having meaningful choice.

But there are questions that need to be asked – and hopefully answered. And perhaps they’re not the ones that many people will, as the headlines hit and voices shrilled, be the ones that were at the forefront of the reporting of this ‘scandal’, which is being dealt with as though it is, of course, utterly unique.

* Phrase copyright of an animal charity in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

PS: if you are interested in GM issues, I suggest following @JoannaBlythman and @SonnyBeez on Twitter. Both retweet a great deal of interesting and informative information, from a variety of sources, on the subject.

• Tomorrow at The Voluptuous Manifesto: are puns a legitimate form of humour?

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