Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘food industry’

Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

9a0b5b93eeeedd11bb1cc8df79237c19

What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Children’s Food

I’m writing this post while listening to this week’s podcast of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. The episode is about nine year-old food writer Martha Payne, whose blog about the dinners served at her school became the cause of a strange and troubling controversy a month ago.

Martha uses her blog, NeverSeconds, to review the food she eats at school. As Jay Rayner points out, although she may criticise – rightly – much of which the school provides for lunch, NeverSeconds is not intended as a kind of school dinners hatchet job. She rates her meals according to a Food-o-Meter, taking into account how healthy, but also how delicious, they are.

As her blog has grown in popularity, children from all over the world have contributed photographs and reviews, and it’s partly this which makes Never Seconds so wonderful: it’s a space in which children can discuss and debate food.

NeverSeconds came to wider – global – notice when the Argyll and Bute Council tried to shut it down in June, after the Daily Record published an article featuring Martha cooking with the chef Nick Nairn, headlined ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies.’ The blog’s honest descriptions and pictures of some of the food served to schoolchildren can’t have pleased councillors either.

As Private Eye (no. 1317) makes the point, the council’s bizarre – and futile – attempts to silence a blog probably had as much to do with internal politicking and minor corruption as anything else, but the furore which erupted after the ban also said a great deal about attitudes towards food and children.

What is really scandalous about the blog is that it reveals how bad – how unhealthy, how heavily processed – school meals can be. When Jamie Oliver launched a campaign in 2005 to improve the quality of school dinners in the UK, his most shocking revelations were not, I think, that children were being fed Turkey Twizzlers and chips for lunch, but, rather, that the British government is willing to spend so little on what children eat at school. Last year, the state spent an average of 67p per primary school pupil per meal, per day. This rose to 88p for those in high school.

Michael Gove has recently announced another inquiry into the quality of school meals – this time headed up by the altogether posher-than-Jamie Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon chain of restaurants, who also seems to spend the odd holiday with the Education Secretary in Marrakech. It’s a tough life.

But as Sheila Dillon comments during this episode of the Food Programme:

Martha Payne, a nine year-old who seems to understand better than many adults, that dinner ladies, or even individual school kitchens, are not the source of the school dinner problem. It has far deeper roots.

When did it become acceptable to serve schoolchildren junk food for lunch? The way we feed children tells us a great deal about how we conceptualise childhood. Or, put another way, what we define as ‘children’s food’ says as much about our attitudes towards food as it does about children.

The idea that children should be fed separately to adults has a relatively long pedigree. The Victorians argued that children – and women – should be fed bland, carbohydrate-heavy meals to prevent their delicate digestive systems from being exerted. Fruit, meat, spices, and fresh vegetables should be eaten only in strict moderation.

There is, of course, a disconnect between what experts – medical professionals, childrearing specialists – recommend, and what people actually eat. In the late nineteenth-century Cape Colony, for instance, the pupils at an elite girls’ school near Cape Town were fed a diet rich in red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.

But the belief that children’s bodies are delicate and potentially vulnerable to disruption was an indicator of shifts in thinking about childhood during the mid and late nineteenth century. The notion that children need to be protected – from work, hunger, poverty, and exploitation and abuse from adults – emerged at around the same time. As children were to be shielded from potential danger, so they were to eat food which, it was believed, was ideally suited to digestive systems more susceptible to upset and illness than those of adults.

But as scientists became interested in the relationship between food and health – in nutrition, in other words – towards the end of the 1800s, paediatricians, demographers, and others concerned about high rates of child mortality during the early twentieth century began to look more closely at what children were being fed. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists in Britain and the United States drew a connection between the consumption of unhealthy or diseased food – particularly rotten milk – and high rates of diarrhoea, then almost always fatal, among children in these countries.

They were also interested in what should constitute a healthy diet for a child. As childhood became increasingly medicalised in the early twentieth century – as pregnancy, infancy, and childhood became seen as periods of development which should be overseen and monitored by medical professionals – so children’s diets became the purview of doctors as well. As RJ Blackman, the Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy of India (no, me neither), wrote in 1925:

Food, though it is no panacea for the multitudinous ills of mankind, can do much, both to make or mar the human body. This is particularly so with the young growing child. All the material from which his body is developed has to come from the food he eats. Seeing that he doubles or trebles his weight in the first year of life, and increases it twenty-fold by the time he reaches adult stature, it will be seen that food has much to accomplish. Naturally, if the food be poor, the growth and physique will be poor; and if good, the results will be good.

Informed by recent research into dietetics, doctors advised parents to feed their children varied diets which included as much fresh, vitamin-containing produce as possible. In a popular guide to feeding young children, The Nursery Cook Book (1929), the former nurse Mrs K. Jameson noted:

Many years ago, I knew a child who was taken ill at the age of eight years, and it was thought that one of her lungs was affected. She was taken to a children’s specialist in London. He could find nothing radically wrong, but wrote out a diet sheet. By following this…the child became well in a month or two. This shows how greatly the health is influenced by diet.

This diet, she believed, should be designed along scientific principles:

Since starting to write this book I have come across an excellent book on vitamins called ‘Food and Health’ (Professor Plimmer), and I have found it very helpful. I have endeavoured to arrange the meals to contain the necessary vitamins, as shown in the diagram of ‘A Square Meal’ at the beginning of the book.

Indeed, she went on to explain that children who were properly fed would never need medicine.

In 1925, advising mothers on how to wean their babies in the periodical Child Welfare, Dr J. Alexander Mitchell, the Secretary for Public Health in the Union of South Africa, counselled against boiling foodstuffs for too long as it ‘destroys most of the vitamins.’ He argued that children’s diets ‘should include a good proportion of proteins or fleshy foods and fats’, as well as plenty of fruit, fresh vegetables, milk, and ‘porridge…eggs, meat, juice, soups’.

What is so striking about the diets described by Mitchell, Jameson, and others is how similar they were to what adults would have eaten. Children were to eat the same as their parents, but in smaller quantities and in different proportions. For example, some doctors counselled again children being allowed coffee, while others believed that they should limit their intake of rich foods.

So what is the origin of the idea that children should be cajoled into eating healthily by making food ‘fun’? Mrs Jameson’s recipes might have cute names – she calls a baked apple ‘Mr Brownie with his coat on’ – but they’re the same food as would be served to adults. Now, our idea of ‘children’s food’ differs from that of the 1920s and 1930s. When we think of children’s food, we imagine sweets, soft white sandwich bread, pizza, hotdogs, and brightly coloured and oddly shaped foodstuffs designed to appeal to children.

As Steven Mintz argues in his excellent history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft (2004), the 1950s and 1960s were child-oriented decades. Not only were there more children as a result of the post-war baby boom, but with the growing prosperity of late twentieth-century America, more money was spent on children than ever before. Families tended to be smaller, and increasing pocket money transformed children into mini-consumers.

Children either bought, or had their parents buy for them, a range of consumer goods aimed at them: from clothes and toys, to ‘child-oriented convenience foods… – “Sugar Frosted Flakes (introduced in 1951), Sugar Smacks (in 1953), Tater Tots (in 1958), and Jiffy Pop, the stovetop popcorn (also in 1958).’

The same period witnessed a shift in attitudes towards childrearing. Families became increasingly child-centred, with meals and routines designed around the needs of children, rather than parents. In many ways, this was a reaction against the orthodoxies of the pre-War period, which tended to emphasise raising children to be obedient, well-behaved, and self-disciplined.

So the definition of children’s food changed again. For the parents of Baby Boomers, food was made to be appealing to children. Fussiness was to be accommodated and negotiated, rather than ignored. And children’s desire for food products advertised on television was to be indulged.

I am exaggerating to make a point – in the US and the UK children during the 1960s and 1970s certainly ate less junk than they do now, and this new understanding of children’s food emerged in different ways and at different times in other parts of the world – but this change represented a bonanza for the burgeoning food industry. Although the industry’s attempts to advertise to children are coming under greater scrutiny and regulation (and rightly so), it does have a vested interest in encouraging children and their parents to believe that that is what constitutes good food for children.

I think that it’s partly this shift in thinking about children’s relationship with food – that they should eat only that which they find appealing, and that children will only eat food which is ‘fun’, brightly coloured, oddly shaped, and not particularly tasty – that allowed for the tolerance of such poor school food for so long in Britain.

Martha’s blog is a powerful corrective to this: she, her classmates, and contributors all have strong opinions about what they eat, and they like a huge variety of food – some of it sweets, but most of it is pretty healthy. The irony is that in – apparently – pandering to what children are supposed to like, politicians and policy makers seem to find listening to what a child has to say, fairly difficult. If we’re to persuade children to eat well, then not only should we encourage them to talk and to think about food, but we need to listen to what they have to say about it.

Further Reading

Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).

Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 11.04.2012

Abolish the food industry.

Eight ways Monsanto fails at sustainable agriculture.

The rise and rise of KFC in Africa.

What does sweetness sound like?

Inside the matzo industry.

Jezebel is characteristically sensible about the new Caveman Diet fad.

The banana industry in 1935.

An interview with Colin Tudge.

What is mindful eating?

An interview with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor.

Yogurt as a tool for social critique and political action in Greece. (No, really.)

Where the staff at Noma like to eat.

How sound influences how we taste food.

A new fashion for iguana meat?

The hidden messages in menus.

Pizza in a jar.

Werner Herzog on chickens.

How to cook like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Five dinner party menus from the Obama administration.

The war against plastic straws.

How to be a jamon carver.

A Russian food primer.

Statistics on pizza consumption.

The dos and don’ts of doughnuts.

President Obama fires a marshmallow cannon.

A black market for designer ice cubes?

A urine-powered restaurant in Melbourne.

How to make your own doner kebab.

Vegetable fat carving.

These are courtesy of my eagle-eyed Mum:

The Great American Cereal Book.

The vegetable man.

Baking the white sandwich loaf of 1950s America. (Really, if you’re going to read any of these links, make it this one.)

Asian ingredients in Senegalese dishes.

The historic cakes of Spitalfields.

Jeffrey Steingarten visits Japan.

A gallery of chickens.

The amazing Coromoto ice cream shop.

Baked hard-boiled eggs.

The Conflict Kitchen.

Food Links, 07.09.2011

Eating with our eyes.

On the link between food insecurity and conflict.

Pret a Manger seems set to stay in the US.

Will Self considers his local Sainsbury’s supermarket cafe.

America’s favourite foods, state by state (fun, but probably spurious).

Where do whoopie pies come from? (Thanks Mum!)

Ferran Adria visits China.

How pricey farmers’ markets threaten food reform – and this is Tom Philpott’s response.

George Monbiot evaluates Hugh’s Fish Fight.

How did granite become the kitchen counter standard?

This is fantastic: the South African Post Office promotes the consumption of vegetables with some lovely new stamps, and a handy recipe book.

A guide to New York City’s pizzas.

Wonderfully, C. Louis Leipoldt’s Polfyntjies vir die Proe (a history of eating in the Cape) is now online.

The real ale renaissance (hurrah! I love ale).

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP 41.133.175.4, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP 41.133.175.4 did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP 41.133.175.4, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 24.08.2011

David Chang’s new food magazine, Lucky Peach, looks absolutely amazing.

Spain’s gastro burglars strike again!

Photographs of the last meal ever served at El Bulli. (It reopens in 2014 as a think tank.)

Niger and Somalia: A Tale of Two Famines.

On Beekeeping without Borders in Afghanistan.

Participation in the United States’s food stamp programme is at a record high.

American bread packaging from the 1940s and 1950s.

This is such a brilliant idea: Eat Your Books helps you to find recipes in your cook book collection.

Consider pasta.

The El Bulli dish name generator.

On the American government’s efforts to regulate the food industry.

This is fascinating: a new study published by the FAO argues that global demand for edible oils and cereals is actually slowing down. This means that high food prices are not the result of increased demand from China and India.

How to make Viking heather beer. (I imagine that one could use fynbos in South Africa?)

When Abundance is Too Much

I was in London last week and bought myself a copy of Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007), a fantastic account of how America’s powerful food industry shapes the ways in which Americans eat and think about food. She argues that the food industry uses a range of strategies systematically to confuse the public into thinking that the processed offerings produced by Heinz, Unilever, and Kellogg are healthy, sensible things to eat. Of course, every food company does this – from the smallest, most down-homey organic business to the biggest, nastiest multinational – but in the US, the food lobby, which works along the same lines as the tobacco and gun lobbies in Washington DC, influences food policy to such an extent that the state has become complicit in encouraging Americans to eat fatty, sugary foods.

Serendipitously, I also came across this infographic which shows what proportion of their incomes people all over the world spend on food per year. It reveals a very strong correlation between development and food prices: populations of wealthier countries spend a smaller percentage of their wages on food than do those in poorer nations. In Western Europe, for example, the Irish spend the least (7.2%) and the Portuguese the most (15.8%) on food. This rises to 20.3% in Poland – slightly more than South Africa at 19.8%. The populations of middle-income countries – like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey – tend to spend between twenty and thirty per cent of their budgets on food. Indonesians (43%), Algerians (43.8%), and Belarusians (43.2%) spend the most – although the map doesn’t include information for most of Africa. And the population which spends the least on food? Americans, at 6.9% of their incomes.

America has such low food prices because of the strength of its food industry. Controlling every aspect of the food chain – from the farms that produce meat and plants for consumption, to the provision of transport and packaging – the size and efficiency of food companies have driven down food prices, resulting in an overabundance of cheap food. In what Harvey Levenstein has dubbed the ‘paradox of plenty’, this variety and cheapness of food has led to less, not more, healthy patterns of consumption: Americans now eat more meat and dairy products than ever before – food which is labour- and resource-intensive to produce and which, until recently, was expensive to buy.

The association of meat and dairy with prosperity has led to concerns about China and India’s increasing consumption of these foods in the context of rising food prices globally. (Myself, I think that rocketing food prices have more to do with the oil price, climate change, and the deregulation of commodity derivatives markets than with greater meat consumption in the East. I wonder to what extent this is part of a ‘blame China’ trend?) But all over the world, experts agree that one way of improving food security is for us to eat less meat and fewer dairy products. As Michael Pollan put it in his food mantra: ‘Eat. Mostly plants. Not too much. Not too little.’

Much of the debate around what we should eat seems to imply a return to healthier, more sustainable eating patterns. While it’s certainly true that populations in the West consume more calories now than they did even thirty or forty years ago, and that eating less meat would be better both for us and the planet, I’m not entirely sure if looking to the past is always helpful. After all, my mongrel collection of ancestors scattered around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and southern Africa were physically smaller than I am and lived shorter lives partly because their diets were less varied, less plentiful, and, importantly, less protein-filled than mine.

I think we could, though, take a closer look at the menus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we need to cut down on our consumption of meat and dairy, it’s surprising to read that the teachers and pupils at the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington ate ‘mutton every day’ (as I noted a fortnight ago). The American headmistresses longed for the steak they had grown up eating in New England, but agreed that beef was far too expensive in South Africa. Instead, they ate mutton, the meat of choice in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony: ‘We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked.’

Although meat-heavy, this was a menu organised around using leftovers: the Seminary bought whole sheep carcasses from the butcher and the school’s cook broke them down herself. She would serve roast mutton on Sunday, and then use up that which wasn’t eaten by transforming it into soup, broth, and rissoles. If needs be, she could supplement their diet with smaller cuts – like cutlets. This was a typical middle-class Victorian practice. Writing about Victorian recipe books, Judith Flanders notes:

Most weekly menu plans listed entirely new dinners only three days a week; the other four were made up of reheated food from previous days. … Mrs Beeton gave numerous recipes for recooking food, usually meat: her Scotch collops were reheated veal in a white sauce; her Indian Fowl was reheated chicken covered with a curry sauce; Monday’s Pudding was made with the remains of Sunday’s plum pudding; not to mention the recipes she gave for endless types of patty, potted meat and minced meat, all of which used cooked meat as their base.

This was both an economical way of ensuring that some meat – usually the sole form of protein – was served during each main meal, as well as relatively healthy: it reduced the amount of meat eaten by each person. Recipe books from the mid-twentieth century have a similar attitude towards menu-planning, providing recipes for ‘made-over meat dishes’.

In a time of plenty when we don’t need to transform last night’s leftovers into tonight’s supper, the idea of ‘made-over’ food may seem a little quaint. But I think that these Victorian menus can help us to rethink how we eat meat. I don’t suggest that we adopt the pattern of roast on Sunday and then reheated meat for the rest of the week (I think this would become pretty boring), but, rather, that we change our thinking about the place of meat in our meals. If we see it as only one component alongside starch and greens, then we’ll eat less of it and more of that which is really good for us. Also, it’s a sensible way of ensuring that even those who can’t afford to buy expensive cuts can include some meat in their cooking. I don’t agree that an entirely meat-free diet will save the planet. If we eat as we should farm – with most land given over to the cultivation of plants and only a small portion devoted to animals – then we’ll adopt a menu that’s as healthy for the planet as it is for us.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

S.E. Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,001 other followers