In an idle moment I decided to reconstruct the contents of a 99p bag of washed and ready-to-eat salad. Of course, you are not meant to do this; the whole point of bagged salad being that we are too busy to wash our own lettuce leaves, let alone count them. But I wanted to know how many you get for your money.
Erring well on the side of generosity, I reckoned that for roughly £1 I had bought two leaves of frisée, one leaf of red radicchio, and two leaves of a pale green crunchy variety of lettuce. This portion was livened up by 18 tiny whole leaves and seven torn pieces of dark-green leaf about the size of a 2p coin.
Bagged salads did not exist before 1992. Now two thirds of households buy them regularly. The value of the UK salad vegetable market grew by 90 per cent between 1992 and 2002. By 2002 it was worth £1.25 billion – more than the total value of the sliced bread or breakfast cereal markets. This does not mean we are eating 90 per cent more salad; volumes have grown only by 18 per cent over the same period; just that the food industry has found ways to make much more money out of salad.
Time was when we ate lettuces in summer and, following our northern European seasons, switched to root vegetables and brassicas in winter. But now, thanks to global sourcing and advances in packaging technology, we have got used to the idea of eating a variety of salads all year round.
Modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) can extend the shelf life of prepared salad by more than 50 per cent, making it possible for supermarkets to sell washed and bagged salad from around the world. Lettuce and salad leaves are harvested from fields in the UK, southern Europe or the US one day, and reach a packing house either the same day or, if imported, a day or two later. The salad is cut or separated out into individual leaves by gangs of workers, then washed in chlorine, dried and sorted before being packaged in pillows of plastic in which the normal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide have been altered. Typically in MAP, the oxygen is reduced from 21 per cent to 3 per cent and the
levels correspondingly raised. This slows any visible deterioration or discolouring. The salad is then trucked to a supermarket’s distribution centre, where it will be dispatched for delivery to individual stores. MAP keeps it looking fresh for up to 10 days. Some lettuces imported from the US can be kept fresh for up to a month.
Unfortunately, research published in 2003 in the British Journal of Nutrition suggested that MAP might actually destroy many of the vital nutrients in salad. The research detailed an experiment conducted at the Rome Institute of Food and Nutrition. Scientists took lettuce grown by a cooperative and gave it to volunteers to eat on the day it was harvested.
Lettuce from the same source was then given to volunteers to eat after it had been packed in MAP straight after harvesting and stored for three days. Blood samples from the two groups were analysed after they had eaten the salad.
The researchers noted that several antioxidant nutrients (which protect against ageing, degenerative disease and cancer) such as vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols and other micro-nutrients, seemed to be lost in the MAP process. The volunteers who had eaten the fresh lettuce showed an increase in antioxidant levels in their blood, but those who had eaten lettuce stored for three days in MAP showed no increase in antioxidant levels.
When the results of this trial were published, they provoked a defensive debate among packers in the UK. Jon Fielder, director of Waterwise – a company that sells ozone-based disinfecting systems to salad packers, wrote to the trade magazine The Grocer, saying that it couldn’t be the MAP that was responsible for destroying nutrients. Fielder blamed the nutrient depletion on the use of chlorine, an oxidising disinfectant, in the washing of salads. The leaves used by most UK packaged salad producers are immersed in a water-chlorine mixture. The chlorine level is usually maintained at a minimum of 50 milligrams per litre; that’s 20 times higher than in the average swimming pool.
In fact, the salad used by the Italian researchers had not been treated with chlorine, so MAP must have been responsible for the nutrient loss they reported. But Fielder had made a helpful addition to public knowledge by airing the disinfecting industry view on chlorine washes.
Chlorine washes leave surface residues of chlorinated compounds on lettuce, and because of this the process is banned in organic production. Some chlorinated compounds are known to be cancer-causing, but there appears to be little research on those left on foods treated with high doses of chlorine; the process having evolved in an ad hoc way.
‘As well as disinfecting out bugs, they disinfect out the taste of fresh leaves, as anyone who has eaten salad straight from the garden knows,’ Fielder [points] out. But it is controlling bugs rather than preserving taste or nutrients that supermarkets are most concerned about. Fielder [adds]: ‘In a litigious society, and with the prospect of damage from bad publicity, no supermarket dares risk having E. coli food-poisoning bugs on the salad they sell.’
There appears to be good reason for supermarkets selling pre-washed salads to worry about bugs. Between 1992 and 2000, the period in which bagged salads took off, nearly 6 per cent of food-poisoning outbreaks in this country were associated with ready-to-eat salads and prepared fruit and vegetables. In 2000 two serious outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in the UK were traced back to lettuce. One person died as a result.
Once the market in pre-packed salads started growing so rapidly, the former government agency the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) decided to monitor bacteria levels in them. A study of refrigerated ready-to-eat salads sold at retail stores in the UK in 1995 found that 6.5 per cent contained listeria and 13 per cent E. coli. A 2001 PHLS survey found salmonella in five samples and high levels of listeria in one sample of ready-to-eat salad from three major supermarkets. One of the samples containing salmonella also contained E. coli; later, an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in different parts of England and Wales was linked to that salad. The majority of the samples were fine, but, as the authors of the study pointed out, the new methods of packing raised new dangers.
Effective decontamination of ready-to-eat vegetables is difficult. The decontamination efficiency of the washing system in terms of pathogen removal is generally unknown, and there is increasing concern regarding the microbiological safety of such products and the effectiveness of current methods.
E. coli bugs are usually spread from human or animal faeces, either from the unwashed hands of farm or pack-house labourers, from manure that has not been properly composted, or from contaminated water. Good hygiene practices are essential to controlling them. But Fielder, himself someone who actually sells disinfecting technology, [says]: ‘The longer the factory chain, the harder it is to control contamination. I always feel I should wash the lettuce I buy even if it is bagged and ready to eat.’
It might seem obvious to stress the importance of ensuring that those who work with fresh prepared foods are healthy, have access to proper sanitation at all times, and are well trained in good hygiene. And standards of hygiene in factories and pack-houses are generally high and meticulously monitored. But in almost every other respect the system of employment that prevails in the food industry today militates against decent conditions.
The preparation and packing of fresh foods such as salad are now dependent on cheap, casual labour. That cheap labour is largely provided by migrant workers. The labour-intensive business of sorting, washing, cutting and packing leaves by hand could not be done without them. Many of them, however, are living in this country in appalling squalor.
Abuse of Power
Supermarkets rarely have written contracts with farmers or pack-houses promising to buy specific quantities, although farmers are obliged to commit to supplying certain amounts to the supermarkets. The farmers are both required to take the loss on any surplus and to meet any shortfall at their own expense by importing if their own harvests do not meet demand. This is what happened in the summer of 2003. The exceptionally hot weather caused much of the UK lettuce crop to mature at once, leaving major producers with a shortfall on their commitments to supply supermarkets in subsequent weeks. UK farmers had to make up quantities by air-freighting in lettuce from the US and selling it at a considerable loss. The market price for a head of lettuce went from roughly 30p to 80p. Some supermarkets continued paying farmers the lower price agreed at the beginning of the year, but were able to hike up their own prices in the shops because of high demand and shortages. When the farmers’ profits are under such intense pressure, one of the few things they can still control is the amount they pay for labour. And the prices paid to farmers are nowhere near enough to justify them employing a permanent workforce large enough to cope with fluctuations in demand.
The scale of migrant labour in the food industry is much larger than anyone is prepared to acknowledge, and a very substantial proportion of that labour is being employed illegally. In the 1990s Don Pollard did extensive research for the Transport and General Workers’ Union on the exploitation of workers in agriculture and food processing. Pollard estimated that at least 50 per cent of workers in those industries were controlled by gangmasters, with perhaps as many as 100,000 people being involved. Another investigator told me that the figure for illegal workers in the UK as a whole is probably nearer 2 million.
As an enforcement officer working in East Anglia told me, the market for illegal migrant workers is largely driven by the supermarkets’ determination to keep their costs down. ‘It all comes down to money at the end of the day. I go to the supermarket and I want the cheapest price. That’s where the chain starts, with all the competition to cut prices.’
However, both supermarkets’ representatives and the National Farmers’ Union deny that they have benefited from the low wages paid to illegal workers. The producers argue that since they pay the gangmaster the going rate, not an illegal cut-price one, the system does not enable them to cut down on labour costs. But what it does enable them to do is turn the supply of workers on and off like a tap, and keep the tap running when they need to – well beyond any legal limit on maximum hours. The supermarkets have driven down prices and transferred the risk to producers; the latter save money by not carrying the spare capacity that flexibility really demands.
The flatlands of the Fens are among the most productive agricultural areas in England, and the network of small towns around them has become the pack-house capital of the UK. Far from any large city that might provide labour or housing, the scale of economic migration in the area is highly visible.
Thetford is typical of the region: a small town in the middle of Norfolk, surrounded by lowland heaths and wetlands. The Red Lion, the old coaching inn in the main square, is now ‘the Portuguese pub’, where the migrants who provide the labour to many of the area’s food factories, pack-houses and farms congregate in their brief moments of leisure. It was there that I met Fatima. She was working through a new gangmaster doing 12-hour night shifts, six days a week, with no overtime payments, for a printer who prints the labels for supermarket ready meals. When she complained that it was too cold to work in the factory, she was threatened with a beating. She had decided to go home. ‘There is a lot of racism,’ she said. ‘It’s horrible here.’
There are 4,000 Portuguese workers living in Thetford and the surrounding areas, and an unknown number of Brazilians. Fatima is friendly with many of them and took me to meet Teresa and her husband Joao.
Teresa was pale, thin and seven months pregnant. She and Joao lived slightly north of Thetford in Watton, along with several other Portuguese workers. Joao’s eyes were bloodshot with exhaustion, and he seemed to shrink into his fragile frame. Teresa had done shifts in many of the food factories and pack-houses in the area, always working through gangmasters because that was the only way she and her husband could get housing. She did a spell at a canning factory where they cut labels off supermarket cans that had been dented and put new labels on top to cover the dents. She’d work on the potato packing lines at weekends. During a period without work Joao had to sell his gold wedding ring to buy food.
Citizens’ Advice Bureaux around the country have catalogued a huge number of cases similar to these. The list of abuses includes the use of violence to enforce conditions, threats of eviction, extortionate rents, dangerous housing, breaches of health and safety regulations, wages below the legal minimum, tax being deducted from wages but not paid to the Inland Revenue, and instant dismissal for trivial or personal reasons.
Thetford doctor Giles Smith wrote to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee on gangmaster licensing and registration, asking why no one could stop the gangmasters recruiting people. His practice has some 700 Portuguese on its list, as well as Russians and Chinese. Dr Smith told me he had seen increasing evidence of migrant vegetable-factory workers becoming ‘long-term sick’. ‘They are being abused and overworked. Quite a few have industrial injuries and get dumped on the sick system. They then apply for housing from the local authority. I feel for them, but I feel for the services the NHS is trying to provide, too. We’re hanging on by our fingernails. There has been no extra funding to provide the care we should be giving. My colleagues and staff are spending vast amounts of time sorting the problems of non-English speaking patients. The strain on the infrastructure – medical, police, education, housing, sewage, roads – is intolerable. There is huge resentment in the town. I fear there is going to be tribal war.’
After hearing at length evidence from retailers’ organisations, farmers, unions and others, the Efra committee reported: ‘The dominant position of the supermarkets in relation to their suppliers is a significant contributory factor in creating an environment in which illegal activity by gangmasters can take root. Intense price competition and the short time-scales between orders from the supermarkets and deliveries to them put great pressure on suppliers who have little opportunity or incentive to check the legality of their labour. Supermarkets go to great lengths to ensure that the labels on their products are accurate… We believe they should pay equal attention to the conditions under which their produce is harvested and packed... Supermarkets cannot wash their hands of this matter.’
Nuno Guerreiro runs the Portuguese Workers’ Association on a voluntary basis. He, like most others I have spoken to, is convinced things are getting worse. ‘Look, never mind the questions of nationality and justice, let’s say you don’t care about social tension either. Think about this at the most basic, selfish level. Treating people like this is not a good idea. We are forcing people to live in squalor, in bad housing with wages so low they cannot live. They are bound to be ill. Bad housing and bad diets – these are the sort of conditions that before the war sustained TB. These are the people who are cleaning your salad.’
Why, when the way the system works is so obvious to people labouring in it and to those living in rural areas, has there been such a conspiracy of silence about it? ‘The government and the supermarkets want cheap food. But we’ll all end up paying in the end,’ said Guerreiro ominously. Gangmasters Authorities investigating the illegal use of labour in the food and agricultural industries can see a pattern emerging right across the country, and fear that it bears the hallmarks of a series of mafia operations. Gangmasters set themselves up as ‘employment agencies’ in the form of one or more limited companies. They are usually small companies with two to three owners, but often have annual turnovers of £8m to £10m. They recruit workers from abroad, and are sometimes involved, either directly or indirectly, in smuggling them into the country and providing them with false documents. The migrants will often have been charged huge sums to be brought here, and some are in debt to the gangmasters when they arrive. As cover, the gangmasters may use a core of legal workers from EU countries, or students from eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc given permission to work in the UK under government schemes for agricultural employment. Portuguese workers, for instance, are used as cover to bring in Brazilians on fake Portuguese IDs. The gangmasters then provide workers with housing and transport, which not only ensures that the workers remain completely dependent on them but also helps disguise the fact that they are being paid less than the minimum wage. Rents deducted are often extortionate. The gangmasters charge the pack-houses, factories and farmers the going rate of £6–£7 for an hour’s labour plus VAT, and deduct tax and National Insurance from their workers’ pay packets – even when those deductions have nowhere legitimate to go because the workers are on fake IDs. This ensures that the books of the companies who are being supplied labour are kept clean. Often, the gangmasters then declare themselves bankrupt before they pay tax and National Insurance, which are collected retrospectively. It is quite common for them to do so while owing between £1m and £3m in unpaid tax and National Insurance, much of which will have been moved offshore and will thus be inaccessible to UK authorities. Once they have gone into liquidation they frequently reappear as phoenix companies, with the same directors supplying workers to the same sites within a few days, but trading as new employment agencies under different names. Clone companies are also created and provide sub-contracted labour to the mother company – partly as a way of disguising frauds further, but also to get round restrictions preventing bankrupts being directors of other companies. Cosmetic perfection: at what price?
The pristine-looking salad leaves we have acquired an appetite for cannot achieve their cosmetic perfection without a little hi-tech help, particularly when they are grown outside their normal season. Intensive monoculture of salads with extended seasons of cropping allows the build-up of pests and diseases in the soil. There has been a correspondingly rapid increase in pesticide usage. Salad leaves are particularly likely to contain pesticide residues.
Most large producers in the UK are fairly coy about what pesticides they use. So, I spoke to an agricultural technical consultant who works with the agrochemical industry in Spain. He explained the system to me on the condition of anonymity.
‘Lettuces have a two-and-a-half- to three-month growing period in Spain. They are sprayed every week with a mixture of fungicide and insecticide, except for the last two weeks. There is a lot of pesticide resistance, so the products we used last year were completely different to the ones we were using five or six years ago. Some of them are very toxic. For example, we treat the lettuces with dithiocarbamates as a preventive – the English seem to use a lot of these. They are very hazardous.
‘This monoculture allows a lot of funguses and pests to flourish. It is devastating: you can lose half the crop. With the plastic hothouses it’s bad, too: they are all so close together; pests spread through those crops like wildfire. I also have to advise growers to use more pesticides than I would like, because if there is just one tiny aphid, their whole crop can be rejected by the supermarkets. If you want something so perfect that you can’t even see one tiny aphid on it, as though it came not from the soil but from a factory, of course you have to use much more pesticide.’
The government’s Central Science Laboratory records the overall usage of pesticides in this country. Its most up-to-date figures (from 1999) referred to outdoor salad crops receiving an average of four insecticide sprays, two fungicide applications and two herbicide doses; lettuces grown indoors were treated with even more fungicides. While there had been some decline in the amount of pesticides used between 1995 and 1999, the general usage of pesticides on these crops has increased dramatically since 1986 and is still several times greater than it was 20 years ago.
Government tests for residues in salads on sale in shops bear this out. One sample contained residues above the statutory maximum residue level of propamocarb, an insecticide that works on the nervous system in a similar way to organophosphates; and one contained residues of the endocrine disruptor vinclozolin, a substance not permitted for use in lettuces in the UK. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with hormones, and are sometimes popularly called ‘gender-benders’.
The Pesticide Safety Directorate’s survey of UK lettuce for 2001/2002 shows that the problem is continuing. Nearly one in five lettuces exceeded maximum residue levels, and 6 per cent contained pesticides not approved for use. An organophosphate banned in the UK was found in several samples, and at 10 times the EU-permitted level in one of them.
The effect of pesticide residues on our health is disputed. The government advisory body the Pesticide Residues Committee says that most residues are present at such a low level that they do not ‘present a concern for consumer health’. Other experts are less sanguine. Dr Vyvyan Howard is a leading toxicopathologist at the University of Liverpool. He has studied the effects of pesticides on unborn children, and points out that the average Briton has between 300 and 500 chemicals in their body that were not present 50 years ago. ‘We have substantially changed the chemical environment of the womb,’ he says. ‘Pregnant women are now exposed to completely novel molecules that their grandmothers were not. Quite a number of these are capable of hormone disruption, and it takes only extremely low doses to cause effects.’ Dr Howard believes there is ample evidence that the pesticide cocktail effect is producing enormous change. Exposure to endocrine disruptors in the womb could be one of the reasons for the much-decreased age of puberty in girls. Early onset of puberty is linked to breast cancer later in life. In the 1960s women had a one in 20 chance of getting breast cancer; now the probability is one in nine. Dr Howard recommends minimising exposure to pesticides on a precautionary basis.
The problem for the supermarkets is that, despite their protestation that they are doing everything to cut down on pesticides, they are on a chemical treadmill. Quite simply their demand for cosmetic perfection forces farmers to use more pesticides than they would otherwise. Although retailers have acknowledged public concern, and Marks and Spencer and the Co-Op have notably said they would work with suppliers to phase out some of the most worrying chemicals from their crops, analysis by Friends of the Earth of Pesticide Safety Directorate data from 2003 showed that supermarkets have not achieved any overall reduction of pesticide residues in the last five years.
Extracted from Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence published by Penguin. Copyright © Felicity Lawrence 2004. www.penguin.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004