The UK is in a spin about food once more. The cancer-causing illegal dye Sudan 1 has turned up in hundreds of foods and spread its tentacles throughout the food-supply chain – everywhere from supermarkets to school meals, pubs and takeaways. It’s like BSE all over again.
British consumers have recognised for some time that they are routinely eating more processed convenience food and cooking less for themselves. Thinking consumers are intermittently fretful about the theoretical risks from this unprecedented, modern diet, but most people take a ‘safety in numbers’ approach. A diet full of ready meals and industrialised factory foods seems the way of the world. Surely the regulatory powers that be would not allow public health to be jeopardised in any serious way. Surely apparently responsible retailers like our large supermarket chains would not sell us food that was dangerous.
But just as with BSE, the penny is beginning to drop. We are beginning to realise that we have abdicated control and responsibility over what ends up on our plates to a not entirely trustworthy food industry and to retailers whose overarching goal is making profits.
As a consequence of Sudan 1, various public safety timebombs that are ticking away in our food chain are shooting up the news agenda. Only a decade ago, the current level of British media interest in food provenance would have been unthinkable. In the early 1990s it was a struggle to get a thoughtful article raising food issues printed. News desks saw food as a fluffy subject, fodder for weekend supplements and women’s pages. Those softer underbellies of the press would countenance a serious piece, but it was an infrequent minority sport: they would not run too many such articles for fear of putting people off all those lip-smacking recipes for Sunday lunch.
Nowadays, bad food stories are everywhere, because due to a succession of scares, many people are put off British food anyway. The other day, I found myself in an airport, starving. Contemplating the line-up of dismal snacks and sandwiches on offer was a depressing experience. Tuna sandwiches were not tempting, both because tuna is a hideously overfished species and also because tuna mayonnaise figured prominently on many retailers’ Sudan 1 product recalls. I know enough about pig production to be sure that the ham in the multiple bread and toastie offerings would have come from some miserable intensive pig unit. The trendy breads (sun-dried tomato ‘bloomers’, bogus Mediterranean ciabattas, et al) would mostly have contained propyl gallate, an additive linked to cancer which is used to extend shelf life. Still famished on the plane, I ate, in desperation, one of two cloyingly oversweet biscuits containing artery-clogging hydrogenated fat. Had I been travelling business class, I would have qualified for a ‘healthy’ option: a bag of ready-prepared Mac Red apple slices, washed in chlorine then packaged in modified air, the kind that seriously depletes vitamin levels. Yum.
Of course, if I had followed the guidance in the best-selling book French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano I would not have let myself get into this situation. Guiliano never travels without what she refers to as an ‘en cas’: a little store of portable good food such as unroasted nuts, which you can attack like a squirrel in desperate circumstances.
French Women Don’t Get Fat is the antithesis of a diet book. It expounds the French philosophy of sane, healthy eating, a philosophy so alien to the UK. French women, Guiliano points out, don’t worry about bad food but think constantly about good food. Unlike the Brits, who have swallowed the ‘no time to cook’ myth, they like to spend time planning and preparing great food. French women know that supermarket food is crap, and shop for seasonal produce in small shops and markets. They never allow themselves to be hungry by observing the time-honoured ritual of three meals a day and eating moderate quantities from a much wider range of foods than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Et voila! They get considerable pleasure from the whole process of shopping, cooking and eating, and remain at a healthy weight.
The danger of food scares, in a British context, is that they breed a fear of bad food rather than this love for good food and all its attendant life-enhancing pleasures. We need to be intelligently aware of the issues but never lose that drive to cherish and appreciate the delights of the table. Coming to the rescue on this side of the Channel is a revolutionary new book written by the food journalist Rose Prince.
In The New English Kitchen: changing the way you shop, cook and eat Prince sets out to reunite the politics of food with the politics of pleasure. She exposes the current gulf between the two. ‘Looking at the daily papers it is clear that the food chain is in crisis… Flick back to the recipe feature in the magazine and, to be quite frank, you could be on another planet. Enjoy! Char-grill some more tiger prawns – to hell with the devastating effects on mangroves! Teriyaki another chicken breast – never mind where it comes from!’
Prince has travelled around Britain and investigated food origins, learning from farmers, growers and specialist retailers. The insights she has gleaned are illuminating and often wittily expressed. She writes of a butcher whose delivery of lamb consisted of 20 lamb carcasses and 40 extra legs. ‘No way was he able to sell all the cuts of 40 lamb carcasses, in spite of the successful pie business run by his wife… He could not sell the cheap cuts. In the newspapers the row about the prospect of genetically modified food raged on, and yet here were consumers effectively demanding lambs with four back legs.’
Telling examples like this graphically underline Britain’s current confusion about food, engineered in part by decades of deceit and obfuscation from the food industry. New English Kitchen provides a contemporary and much-needed manual that allows us to buy, cook and eat intelligently and economically but with heightened awareness. Unlike the French, we do need help developing a rounded attitude to food, one which restores food to its proper place in daily life.
Following the Sudan 1 revelations, many more people are asking themselves hard questions about the over-processed, industrialised food that they are in the habit of ladling into their shopping trolleys. Some are already shunning that readymade cottage pie for some raw mince and resuming cooking for themselves. Quite right, too.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2005
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