Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Food transparency

How transparent is your food chain? With all those horse tales flying around the web these days, I scrutinise my food much more than I did before, which was quite a lot anyway. The evening meal constituted the weekend's leftovers: chickpea stew, avocado dip, cabbage salad and bread. Here's my food chain for that meal:

Ρύζι, Λάρισα,ryzi, larisa
ΡΕΒΥΘΙΑ ΧΟΝΔΡΑ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΙΑΣ 3Α 500 gΚαταστράφηκε η παραγωγή σκόρδουChickpea stew: I bought the Greek-labelled chickpeas in bulk at a grocery, filling the bag myself with the help of a scoop. It's slightly cheaper to buy them that way, instead of buying the same product form the supermarket, ready-packed. The Greek-labelled rice from AB Vasilopoulos supermarket (at one time, apparently the only supplier of rice and pulses whose Greek labels were found to be genuine when they were tested) was grown in Larissa. The onions are from the onion braid hanging under the staircase; they were bought in the summer when the producer from Kissamos drove round the villages with his truck loaded with nothing but onion braids. The Greek-labelled garlic was bought at the supermarket; it came from Evros which produces half Greece's garlic supplies (the other half come mainly from China). The olives used to produce our own supplies of olive oil are pressed before us; in fact, we have to be present when they are pressed so that we pick up the oil immediately so that we don't hold up other people's pressing. The salt and pepper I added to the stew - good Lord, I have never questioned where that came from! Guess I'd better work on this...

Cabbage salad: The white cabbage came from my uncles' garden, while the red cabbage came from our own - I picked both heads myself. I added a grated Greek-grown carrot (from Thiva) to the salad, bought from the supermarket. The olive oil is from our supplies (see chickpea stew). I dressed the salad with some vinegar made from the grapes we pressed at my cousin's vineyard, which we transported to barrels at our house (one barrel turned into vinegar, while the other became wine). As for that salt, after checking the plastic container, I find out that it came from the sea, it was produced in Greece (which I guess means Greek waters), and it was packed in a plant in Athens - I hope it came from Sounio rather than Skaramangas...

Avocado dip: My husband picked the avocado from the tree and I pureed it with some garlic (see chickpea stew) and lemon juice which came from a lemon I picked from my uncles' garden. Salt (see cabbage salad),  olive oil (see chickpea stew) and sweet paprika pepper - I have no idea where that was produced (only where it was packaged).

Bread: Only the baker knows what goes into that - well, I can only hope that he knows the food chain that he uses well enough. I can't bake my own bread ...

For dessert, I'm going to have some quince spoon sweet which I made myself - quince from my colleague's tree, sugar from Greece's sugar manufacturer (which is now going to be sold to a Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian or French company), and lemon juice (see avocado dip).

How do you really know what you're eating if you're eating, say, sausage, or hamburger, where the meat is so finely processed that you can't really tell what you are eating?
In Dickens' Hard Times, published in 1854, Mr Bounderby regales his dinner guests with talk of consuming horses in his youth, in the guise of "polonies and saveloys". Sneaking horsemeat into processed foods is nothing new. Secretive signals and midnight handovers of horseflesh to dodgy butchers formed an established part of the lurid storytelling of the gutter press. Horsemeat was as unacceptable then as it seems today.
Why are Westerners astounded to hear that they are eating horse meat? How much honesty do they expect in their market-oriented, profit-driven world, where a typical food chain in Northern Europe reads something like this:
Swedish brand Findus supplying British supermarkets employed a French company Comigel to make its ready meals, our correspondent says. To get meat for its factory in Luxembourg, Comigel called on the services of another French firm Spanghero. This company in turn used an agent in Cyprus, who in turn used an agent in the Netherlands, who placed the order at an abattoir in Romania, our correspondent says.

How on earth did horse meat suddenly become cheaper than beef? The answer to that lies in more bureaucracy:
Horsemeat in France is not noticeably cheaper than beef, but according to the Green MEP Jose Bove the price of horsemeat has recently fallen dramatically in Romania following a new law there banning horses and carts on the highway.
If you really do insist on buying ready-produced food that simply needs to be heated before being consumed, because perhaps you do not have the luxury of being able to produce/pcik your own food straight from the soil, then try buying something whose appearance is recognisable. If it's highly processed, like a meat sauce, hamburger patties or sausages, you can't really expect to know what's in your food. Of course, you can demand that the state impose legislation to provide greater food transparency, but you can't really blame the state for the mistakes it makes - you are also to blame because you didn't take the time to prepare yourself a decent meal. The poorest people in the world survive on food they prepare themselves, with little variety in their meals. It's only Westerners who don't devote time to food preparation because they have too many diversions, too many better things to do than cook a meal from scratch. You can hardly perform a check on what you're eating when your first contact with a meal is on opening a tin/packet. Even if you can afford a laboratory test for your meal, it's simply not practical to do this every time you eat. In other words, you eat processed food at your own risk. If you don't want to take such a risk, well, you're gonna have to cook from scratch, like I did. If this sounds too challenging, just think about what people used to do before Findus lasagne came along: 
"Chicken soup was ready as a remedy for Gerry's flu, and it seemed to do Sylvia good too. We followed it with steaks from a great French butcher in Soho, and mashed potato and salad. Sylvia ate heartily, and said how good it all was... the next day she joined us at the table for our usual ample Sunday lunch of soup, roast meat with the usual trimmings, and cheese, dessert, and wine." (Sylvia Plath: Jillian Becker on the poet's last days, 10 Feb 2013, BBC)
You don't have to cook every day. I certainly don't do that myself. The chickpea stew and avocado dip were made on Saturday (I had to soak the beans from Friday night), while the cabbage salad was made on Sunday. I cooked nothing on Monday, except for tomorrow's meal - boureki - which is in the wood-fired oven as I write; that was prepared in late summer, ready to be eaten in winter, a bit like the Findus lasagne which was in the freezer section of the supermarket. But there is a vast difference between a Findus freezer meal and my boureki. The real problem with the Findus food is not its cost, its taste or flavour, its packaging or appearance. It's the food chain that is to blame, a food chain characterised by an impersonal flow of suppliers who have no contact with each other except by telephone or email, or even with the consumers except perhaps through anonymous surveys, a food chain whose sole aim is to make a profit.

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