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Hot Cross Bun Fight

Just before Easter this year, a group of Christians in South Africa objected to the labelling of hot cross buns at Woolworths, a premium supermarket, as halal. Possibly chastened by the furore which erupted over its stocking of Christian magazines a couple of years ago, Woolies apologised. But, wonderfully, the response of the South African public was hilarity: what on earth, asked people on social media and radio chat shows, was wrong with making hot cross buns available to Muslims?

As many pointed out, it would be interesting to see if these Christians also avoided McDonald’s, KFC, Nando’s or any of the other fast food chains which serve halal food. In a country as socially and culturally diverse as South Africa, it makes sense for restaurants and shops to sell halal and kosher products. Most chicken sold in South Africa is halal, for instance.

In fact, the South African Easter meal of choice is pickled fish – a dish developed by slaves brought to the Cape from southeast Asia, India, and elsewhere during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these slaves would have been Muslim, a religion tolerated by the Dutch and, later, British authorities on the grounds that they believed it to be ‘civilised’ and unlikely to encourage slaves to revolt or disobey their masters and mistresses.

So South African Christians eat a dish at Easter which was created by Muslim slaves more than two centuries ago. And even those who are not Christian eat it: we had my Mum’s version of pickled fish on Good Friday – based on a recipe my Great-Grandmother cooked – with pilaf instead of the usual bread-and-butter, and it was delicious.

My Mum's pickled fish

I was interested by the hot cross bun debate because – I think – it’s the first major discussion South Africans have had about the labelling of halal food. Last year there was some controversy about a meat supplier which allegedly sold haram meat as halal, but the debates then were about the regulation of the meat industry, and not about the public’s willingness – or otherwise – to eat halal food.

This ‘storm in a baking pan,’ as Father Chris Townsend of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference put it, was fairly unusual, in international terms, in the way that it was greeted with such widespread condemnation. In France, the first country in Western Europe to ban women from wearing the burqa and niquab in public, the labelling of halal food is now an electoral issue. Concerned by the depressing popularity of far-right loon Marine le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy announced in January that if re-elected, he would enact legislation to ensure that all halal foods are clearly labelled. (You can donate to Francois Hollande’s campaign here.)

Sarkozy justified these new measures – which angered Jewish leaders as well – by implying that the ritual slaughter of animals for halal and, by implication, kosher meat is inhumane. But French Muslims argue that Sarkozy and the French right’s attack on ritual slaughter has less to do with the treatment of animals than it does to broader debates about multiculturalism and social integration in France. As one French blogger commented:

Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen have resorted to this because they have no solutions to the real problems. It’s the last desperate thrashings of a mad dog that has nothing to lose. It’s part of a chain of thought that goes from halal meat to Islamism to terrorism.

This isn’t the only recent debate about the labelling of halal meat and ritual slaughter. Australia and Canada have seen similar discussions, and the Daily Mail seems to specialise in a kind of hysterical journalism which links the widespread availability of halal meat to the end of Britain and the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Religious slaughter is banned in New Zealand, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden. An attempt to enact a similar ban in the Netherland last year was blocked at the last minute.

What makes these debates interesting is that they are hardly new. David Smith writes that in 1995,

a federal German court effectively banned Muslims from slaughtering animals without prior stunning. The court ruled that the practice was not required by their religion and was thus not protected by the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious expression. In January 2002, however, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the right to freedom of religious expression and choice of occupation did in fact ensure the entitlement of Germany’s Muslims, or at least those responsible for their provision with halal meat, to resume stunningless methods for such ends without the threat of legal action.

In his excellent Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (1995), Sander Gilman explores shifting attitudes towards shehitah, the slaughter of animals in accordance with Judaic law and custom. In the 1880s and 1890s, various campaigns to outlaw shehitah emerged in Europe. In Germany, only Saxony eventually banned shehitah in 1897. While many supporters of the campaign were anti-vivisectionists or were concerned about the treatment of animals in abattoirs, there is no coincidence that this interest in the butchering of kosher meat developed at the same time as a wave of anti-Semitism swept Europe.

In 1883, delegates at a meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna argued that the protection of ritual slaughter was an indication of Jewish influence over European politics. But others pointed out that the attempt effectively to ban kosher meat was driven by anti-Semitism. In 1885, the Lord Mayor of London compared the campaign to the allegations around Jewish ritual murder during the medieval period. The liberal Berlin Daily News declared in 1893 that those opposed to ritual slaughter were ‘pure anti-Semites’. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis outlawed ritual slaughter – also in the name of preventing cruelty to animals – during the 1930s.

There is, then, an obvious link between anxiety about religious difference, and even racism, and concerns about ritual slaughter. That said, expressing concern about the ways in which animals are slaughtered should not necessarily immediately be construed as religious or cultural intolerance. Countries need to find a balance between facilitating the religious practices of all their citizens, and the humane treatment of animals.

The South African hot cross bun fight (ahem, sorry) was not, though, about ritual slaughter. The Christians who complained about the labelling of hot cross buns in Woolworths were angry about the association of a Christian symbol – the cross on the bun – with a sticker connected to Islam. Next year, Woolies will sell hot cross buns (without the halal sticker) and spiced buns (with a halal sticker). The buns will be identical, with the exception of a flour-and-water-paste cross on the former.

I don’t know enough about the history of attitudes towards religious slaughter in South Africa to position this incident within a broader, historical context, but there are several examples of religious communities coexisting fairly harmoniously during periods of this country’s past. Most of the butchers in nineteenth-century Cape Town were Muslim, for example. This meant that the majority of Victorian Capetonians ate halal meat, regardless of their religious beliefs.

This incident demonstrates not only the extent to which food is integral to the maintenance of religious identities – which is particularly ironic given the fact that so many of the traditions and rituals we associate with Easter have pagan origins – but that people’s anxieties about religious freedom and identity are frequently played out through debates around food.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

Pablo Lerner and Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, ‘The Prohibition of Ritual Slaughtering (Kosher Shechita and Halal) and Freedom of Religion of Minorities,’ Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 22, no. 1 (2006/2007), pp. 1-62.

David Smith, ‘“Cruelty of the Worst Kind”: Religious Slaughter, Xenophobia, and the German Greens,’ Central European History, vol. 40, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 89-115.

Ellen Wiles, ‘Headscarves, Human Rights, and Harmonious Multicultural Society: Implications of the French Ban for Interpretations of Equality,’ Law & Society Review, vol. 41, no. 3 (Sep., 2007), pp. 699-735.

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

Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

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

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

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

Food Links, 08.06.2011

Hayibo covers the recent tension over vegetable exports in Europe.

Foreign Policy‘s theme for its May/June edition is food, and it’s fascinating. Lester Brown writes about the new geopolitics of food, and this amazing article shows how food explains the world.

Why are food prices at the mercy of bankers?

The Guardian has an excellent guide to the global food crisis.

Should the US government subsidise the growing of sweeteners?

The French government has banned the riot police from drinking alchohol with their meals. Daft.

On the origins of measuring the calorie content of food.

This fascinating infographic from the World Resources Institute charts global greenhouse gas emissions – agriculture is responsible for 13.8% of them, and loads of nitrous oxide and methane.

Penguin has just released its Great Food series: a collection of twenty short books each dedicated to the writing of great food writers.

‘The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul’. Nice.

Can you feed a family of four on £50 a week? I would have thought so.

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