By now you will all have heard about the “horse meat” scandal still unfurling all over Europe. Though there is nothing wrong with horse meat (in fact it’s leaner, sweeter, tender, low in fat and higher in protein than beef) the labeling system has clearly failed the consumer. Additionally the discovery of pig DNA in beef products is of particular concern to the practicing Jews and Muslims, whose dietary laws forbid the consumption of porcine products. Horse meat is also forbidden by Jewish dietary laws because horses do not have cloven hooves and they are not ruminants. Having said that, the main issue here is how much do we know or don’t about what ends up in our food, and why, since we have had DNA testing for some time, do we not have a safe system in place. As for the farce that is food labeling I have for some time believed that most food processors don’t toe the line and are always looking to cut corners at the expense of the consumer. The pic below proves my point: in this packaged lasagne, the consumer is told that it is beef but in fact it is a 100% horse meat.
The production of food has undergone considerable change over the past century as the emphasis of its preparation moved progressively from our humble kitchens to the factory floors. This transition has been accompanied by significant changes in the diverse types of food we eat, and the methods by which it is prepared, packaged, managed, distributed and more importantly, marketed (or lied to, it you prefer). Much time and effort has been expanded by manufacturers to recreate factory-processed food products having traditional “home cooked“ appeal. But the apparent lack of flavor in most modern food stuff is regretted by those, like me, who remember when everything tasted so much better than it does now. None of the ready-made meals I have ever bought have tasted any good to me, mere fillers is about the best I can come up with and no amount of horse meat, which is superior to beef, is going to change my mind.
Which brings me to labels. Reading labels is a minefield. Apart from needing a doctorate in chemistry and knowing the proper amount of cholesterol one should subscribe to, who among us would know what Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids and Propylene glycol mean? I don’t and the chances are most of you don’t either. Pick up a product, you will be confronted by a long list of chemicals, generally written in very small letters with an appropriate amount of numbers and daily percentages, usually at the back of it. On the front most food manufacturers slap on health labels haphazardly, featuring all the goodness from here to eternity, but so many packaged foods are little more than white flour, fat, sugar, salt and additives in various combinations with meat or fish or vegetable matter, yet they are marketed as modern-day medical miracles, offering vague benefits for virtually every part of the body, including long-lasting bones and a cure for eternal well-being! Some even offer a lifelong immunity! To what, one wonders! And don’t get me started on HFCS, trans-fats and the “fat free” pronouncements of just about every brand: that’s a huge can of rotten worms, one that we will never be able to decipher in our lifetime.
Many well established food products and beverage could not be produced without recourse to the use of added flavorings (a little known fact is that a Tralee company – my neck of the woods here – Kerry Foods, is a world leader in flavors). The choice between natural and synthetic flavorings is still a subject for debate and this is likely to become more emotive as the demand for safe and wholesome food increases and a greater proportion of what we eat and drinks will still become subject to mass production methods and associated standardization. That is, I guess, the price we pay for the so-called globalization. The problems of flavored foods are numerous and complex, they are not amenable to facile answers and the fact that there are no strong regulations that govern food flavoring plants is just not plain oversight but borderline criminal. In addition, there are no regulations that govern the chemicals used in these plants. Organic products never sounded better.
Going back to a simpler life, with a mind to shun processed foods as much as one can (it’s not easy to cook from scratch, I know) is going to present some difficulties as our lives are more or less governed by time (and the lack of), having to work a little harder for less money in these austerity-riven times. Cooking at home is ideal if one has the inclination and some know-how and it sure beats anything you might find in the supermarkets shelves or in their refrigerated units. A return to bakeries, local butcher shops and corner greengrocers would be ideal. But a return to those simple days may be only possible if, and I guess – darkly – that in the near future we either run out of energy or will experience a banking system meltdown which will force us into a new mindset, a wholly new paradigm of living, hopefully in peace and harmony. But I doubt that.
There are a numbers of food writers and ecologists who have been at the forefront of nutritional habits and food chains. One is Michael Pollan (also a New York Times contributor) and if you haven’t heard of him I would I suggest a reading of his coruscating book, “The Omnivore Dilemma”, a masterpiece of understanding dietary needs and offers a comprehensive critique of modern agribusiness:
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes four basic ways that human societies have obtained food: the current industrial system, the big organic operation, the local self-sufficient farm, and the hunter-gatherer. Pollan follows each of these processes—from a group of plants photosynthesizing calories through a series of intermediate stages, ultimately into a meal. Along the way, he suggests that there is a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, that the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world, and that industrial eating obscures crucially important ecological relationships and connections.
Discuss. I look forward to your views.