Friday, 8 February 2013

Lessons from the Horse Meat Scandal?

Horse meat has now been found in two supermarket products. Outrage has erupted because so many British people are fond of horses. Meanwhile many people must be wondering what the fuss is about, because there was no suggestion that the meat was unfit for human consumption. But meat eating has always been an emotive topic and rulings about taboo animals in ancient, holy texts still rule the eating habits of millions of people across the globe. And many others have strong views about which animals they think are suitable fare.
So should we be concerned, above and beyond how we feel about horses?
I think what this highlights is the complexity of the production of processed foods. We like them because they are convenient but they are not produced in a simple way. This first struck me when my son had a summer job in a cookie dough factory about ten years ago. One factory was mixing the basic dough and then shipping it in big blocks to a second factory. At this location the dough was mixed with choc chips, nuts and so on, rolled out and cut into cookie shapes. These were then batched up and shipped to in-store bakeries in hundreds of supermarkets and other food outlets. It was a revelation to learn that the "freshly baked" cookie in my local store had such a complex history.
We all now know that a meat dish sold in the UK could have been prepared in another EU country, using meat from yet another country. Somewhere in that chain of production mistakes can be made, quality compromised or truth concealed. No food regulator or retail chain is able to track back and test the quality and safety of every step in the chain at regular intervals. And even if they test food products regularly all they can do is take an occasional sample. It's never going to be possible to test every batch and an unexpected ingredient will, from time to time, get into processed food.
The surprising thing is that infringements of food safety are so rare. Safety has to be the primary focus of regulators and suppliers. This is where we want them to concentrate, isn't it? Concern about the contents reflecting accurately "what it says on the tin" must be secondary.
Processed foods have their place in busy lives. They are also a godsend to those who are physically unable to cook for themselves. But if, for whatever reason, you want to be sure that you know exactly what you are eating, you will avoid them. Your concerns could be religious or they could be health related - such as allergies or a compromised immune system. The vast majority of us do not have the land or the time to grow our own food. So if you want to be as sure as you can be that you know what you are eating you will shop locally, buy local produce and cook meals from scratch. 

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