1. Hunger in Malawi. | 2. Photographs of what families around the world eat in a week. | 3. German brewers object to fracking. | 4. The growing, global backlash against Monsanto. | 5. Fifty ways to close a food bank. (And the crisis in UK food banks.) | 6. ‘In the United States, domesticated bee populations have reached a 50-year low and keep dwindling.’ | 7. The revival of the Scottish beer industry. | 8. What is chicken fried steak? | 9. The mold which caused the Irish potato famine seems to have been eradicated. | 10. George Orwell makes tea, in a trench, in the Spanish Civil War. (Thanks, Joshua!) | 11. In praise of chickpeas. | 12. On Chardonnay. | 13. A banana-themed quiz in honour of the return of Arrested Development. | 14. Tamale Spaceship. | 15. Rainbow cheesecake.
Just as it appeared that the meat contamination scandal in the UK had come, if not to a resolution, then to a point where there were no new revelations of unlabelled horsemeat in ready meals, fast food, and other processed meat, the Guardian has released a report on the employment practices of one of the Dutch firms implicated in food adulteration.
Not only does the investigation reveal the appalling conditions in which a group of poorly-paid Polish immigrants were forced to work, but it demonstrates the extent to which the Willy Stelten factory mixed horsemeat as well as old and rotting meat into meat sold as beef. The owner of the business – the titular Willy Stelten – was arrested earlier this week for allegedly selling 300 tonnes of horsemeat as beef.
As the Guardian’s handy timeline of the scandal demonstrates, for all of the recent lull in new developments, it’s been in the news for nearly half a year. In contrast, South Africa’s contaminated meat scandal was reported widely in April but has since then largely disappeared from the headlines.
I think that it’s worth comparing the two scandals. These are my observations about the similarities and differences between them. If you’ve any to add, list them in the comments, below, and I’ll incorporate them into the post.
The most striking difference between the British and South African scandals was the ways in which they originated. In January, the Irish Food Standards Authority reported that it had found unlabelled horsemeat in burger patties sold by Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl. It implicated ABP Silvercrest, one of Europe’s biggest meat processors, in selling unlabelled horsemeat and pork to a range of factories and supermarkets, including, even, upmarket, ethical Waitrose.
As the UK Food Standards Authority began its investigation, an increasing number of food producers, supermarkets, and fast food chains have been accused of passing off horse- and other meats in food products labelled, usually, as beef. In fact, it now seems to be easier to identify those retailers not linked to the scandal, than those who are.
The South African food scandal was the product of a study carried out by meat scientists at Stellenbosch University. In February, they announced that they had found traces of horse, donkey, goat, and water buffalo meat in a range of products in supermarkets and butchers around the country. Because the researchers were unwilling to make their list of retailers public, City Press submitted an FOI request, and, in April, named all of South Africa’s major supermarkets, Food Lovers’ Market, and smaller, independent shops as guilty of mislabelling meat products.
In many ways, the two scandals are very similar. They occurred because of a failure of regulation; the contamination of meat was widespread (it wasn’t limited to one or two supermarkets, but occurred across the food industry); and there is evidence to suggest that some illegal meat entered both food chains because of criminal activity.
Also both scandals hit poorest customers the hardest: those people who buy the budget burgers and processed meat sold at massive, bargain supermarkets. Possibly because poverty is so obvious in South Africa, local commentators managed – mercifully – to avoid making silly, snotty arguments about having no sympathy for people who had been duped into buying horsemeat.
Indeed, it’s striking how frequently the South African scandal has been described as a crisis of mis-labelling. Retailers argued that the traces of donkey, horse, and other meats in products were very, very small, and probably the result of cross-contamination. The Department of Trade and Industry ordered the National Consumer Commission – an agency of the Department – to investigate the issue.
South Africa has very strict laws which regulate the length of the food chain – from the slaughter of animals to the labelling of meat products in shops. In fact, the Consumer Protection Act is one of the strictest of its kind in the world. The problem lies in enforcing these rules. The three departments responsible for patrolling food safety – health, agriculture, and trade and industry – have, collectively, failed to do so adequately. Herman Blignaut, an attorney with copyright experts Spoor & Fisher, said to City Press:
The respective departments probably don’t have the manpower to sustain a firm hold on compliance of the requirements, so the policing is not what it should be.
Another factor that can make policing more difficult is the fact that slow, expensive and expert analysis is necessary to establish whether the meat claimed to be in the product actually is, and whether it could be contaminated by other meats.
But this focus on food labelling, while important, obscures some other, more fundamental questions. Most of the cases of contamination identified by the Stellenbosch report related to unlabelled chicken, mutton, and pork, and these can be dealt with through the enforcement of labelling regulations. But the report does not explain how and why water buffalo, donkey, and horsemeat entered the food chain.
Answering questions posed by the opposition Democratic Alliance in Parliament, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson admitted that South Africa imported horse and water buffalo, as well as other meats, from Brazil and India:
According to the department, South Africa’s Brazilian meat imports included 61 tons of horse meat in 2011, 150 tons in 2012 and 49.8 tons this year. More than 460 tons of poultry and 45.5 tons of beef were imported from Brazil from 2011 to 2012.
South Africa imported 1 175 tons of water buffalo from India in 2011 until imports were suspended in May, 2011.
The reason why imports were suspended from both countries was because of the ‘significant risk’ their products posed to South Africans. Unfortunately, the Minister ‘declined to disclose the names of importers or give a reason why the department considered meat imports from these countries to be potentially harmful.’
In addition to this, a confidential police report from 2012 alleges that crime syndicates illegally import meat – including water buffalo meat from Asia. Jacques Pouw explains:
The crime intelligence report says the syndicates are also involved in money laundering, bribery and, in some cases, narcotics and trafficking.
The report was compiled after South Africa’s red meat industry bodies apparently warned authorities that water buffalo meat was being smuggled into the country.
The report, called ‘Criminal syndicates and the meat market’, reveals that an Interpol investigation has found South Africans are members of syndicates that smuggle meat from Asia, South America and our neighbouring states into the country.
It is not clear if police are currently investigating these syndicates. So the South African tainted meat scandal has not been resolved. Crucial questions have yet to be answered: what are the authorities doing to prevent the illegal import of meat? And why were legal meat imports from Brazil and India halted?
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The first time I visited Scotland I stayed at a former hunting lodge near Montrose. A group of us spent Christmas there, and saw red squirrels, a haggis, and a ruined castle. It was tremendous fun. But on the nine-hour train journey back to London, the conductor decided to close the buffet car because the tea urn was broken.
We had no food for almost half a day’s travel on the grounds that it was impossible to make tea.
When I mentioned this to various friends, their response was to shrug and to comment that, well, did I expect anything better of Scottish attitudes towards food? This seemed only to have been confirmed by the fact that I had spotted a banner in Stonehaven, proudly proclaiming a local pub as the ‘birthplace’ of the deep-fried Mars bar.
With its reputation for heavy drinking, and enthusiasm for a cuisine that makes a virtue of the deep-fat fryer, Scotland is not usually held up as a paragon of culinary sophistication. But anyone who visits the country realises that it’s possible to eat well – very well – there: that there are interesting independent food shops, farmers’ markets, local producers of smoked fish, venison, biscuits, and other specialities, and plenty of excellent restaurants.
So why, then, this insistence that Scottish cuisine is best exemplified by White Lightening cider (which sold at around 8% alcohol per volume, before being discontinued by its producer for encouraging heavy drinking) and deep-fried fast food?
The idea of Scotland as a land of clans, tartan, country dancing, and highland games was invented during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Hugh Trevor-Roper explains in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s classic The Invention of Tradition (1983), ‘the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention.’* Until the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Scotland was connected, culturally, to Ireland. The construction of the ‘Highland tradition’ was an attempt to create a distinct, unique Scotland. It was adopted in three stages:
First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and the re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by, historic Lowland Scotland: the Eastern Scotland of the Picts, the Saxons and the Normans.
This process was consolidated in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, with the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s novels about an idealised Scotland, and the Victorian ‘discovery’ of the country. As clothing, music, and language were co-opted in this remaking of Scotland, so was food: shortbread, oats, smoked fish, haggis, and neeps and tatties also became emblematic of this new, imagined nation.
These dishes and ingredients not only represented Scotland, but Scottish people themselves. Stereotyped as hardy, brave, and prudent, this was the frugal, healthy fare of a nation accustomed to preparing for hard times. Even the national drink – whiskey – was to be drunk slowly, and in small quantities. Advertisements for Scottish produce in the twentieth century urged mothers to buy Scottish oats so that their children would grow up to be as big and strong as Scotsmen wielding the cabers, stones, and hammers of the highland games.
So when, then, did Scotland’s reputation for bad eating originate? As far as I can see, over the course of the twentieth century, reports on Scotland’s bad eating habits have usually accompanied descriptions of poor, urban working-class life, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the fiction boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, best exemplified by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the rural idyll of the highland myth, or the uptight, anxious middle-class hypocrisy described in Muriel Spark’s 1961 novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the desperation and dysfunction of Scotland’s junkies and addicts is held up as alternative way of understanding a nation coming to terms with the social and economic implications of the demise of its industries.
But the poking fun at deep-fried Mars Bars and the country’s heavy drinking is part of another set of attitudes to working-class people: as chavs (or ‘neds‘ as they’re called in Scotland) as people who are feckless, stupid, and self-indulgent. Their enthusiasm for deep-fried pizza, sausages, and chocolate is meant to suggest their lack of self-control and unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices. These are the ‘scroungers’ of Tory legend.
In a review of Rian E. Jones’s new book Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender (2013), John Harris comments that the early 1990s saw a shift in British culture where working-class life became characterised – increasingly – in a set of deeply pejorative stereotypes:
The watershed in her story is the moment embodied by so-called Britpop, and lad culture, both of which encouraged a kind of class tourism, whereby many a young bourgeois could fake an interest in such totems of supposed proletarian authenticity as football, dog racing and greasy spoon cafés, all of which defined the tenor of British pop circa 1994-5… As Jones sees it, the way was thus opened for a horror show that arrived just under a decade later, when two former private schoolboys came up with the cheap and nasty cast of the hugely successful sketch show Little Britain, not least Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, every right-wing trope about working-class women brought to life. Jones juxtaposes her with the infamous 1992 speech by the-then Tory minister Peter Lilley, who took aim at a ‘little list’ of ‘benefit offenders’ including ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list’.
Her point is that cultural expression can carry much political weight: as it turned out, the Little Britain worldview dovetailed conveniently with the programme of the current government.
Scotland’s transformation into the land of the deep-fried Mars Bar was part of this process: it was another manifestation of the ‘demonisation’ (not a term I particularly like) of the working class.
The current Scottish food revival, including even the enthusiasm for the strictly locavore ‘Fife diet,’ is also part of a process of re-imagining Scotland: one that privileges its landscape, and which positions it as a ‘green’ nation with a healthy respect for its environment, as well as its (invented) food traditions. But – and this is what, I think, prevents this outbreak of Scottish foodie-ism from being irredeemably middle-class – Scotland has introduced a National Food and Drink Policy, which aims to promote the sustainable production of food in the country, while ensuring that diets improve. (It’s even managed to introduce a minimum pricing law for alcohol.) It’s no use producing wonderful food, if most people can’t afford to eat it. The government in England should take note.
*This is also the Hugh Trevor-Roper who dismissed African history on the grounds that it described ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.’ So there’s that too.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,’ in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 15-41.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Some of the battiest lines in Gwyneth Paltrow’s new recipe book:
You’ll also see striped bass called for in a lot of the fish recipes — that’s because it swims in the waters close to Gwyneth’s summer home [in Martha’s Vineyard], where we do a lot of cooking.
My old assistant, Cleo, insisted we include her secret afternoon shake.
Our dear friend Cameron [Diaz] is a master popcorn maker — and this is one of the many reasons she is Apple and Mosey’s favorite house guest.
I once overnighted a batch [of almond butter cookies] from London to my manager in Los Angeles who was doing the clean program and was dying for a cookie! They did not disappoint.
I know that Paltrow is – like Ruth Reichl, I suppose – an easy target. But a lot of what this recipe book of hers recommends, is dangerous nonsense. I want to draw attention to the fact that Paltrow is not a nutritionist. She’s an actress. With a deeply odd relationship with food.
A few years ago I spent boat race day in London at the first of what has since become a major annual event: the Oxford and Cambridge goat race. Arriving early to size up the relative strengths of the two racing goats, punters placed bets on the likely winner, and then lined the course, waiting for their champions to canter by. Unfortunately, Cambridge – who, when I placed my bet, had seemed friskier as his minder had attached his number to him – lost interest, and ambled part of the course. Smaller, more ambitious, and, frankly, faster, Oxford won the day by more than two lengths. (Which says rather a lot about the relative usefulness of university league tables.)
The purpose of the race was, and is, to raise funds for the Spitalfields City Farm, a wonderful institution just off Brick Lane. It’s one of several city farms in London – the best known probably being the larger, well-established Hackney City Farm – whose purpose is to bring the countryside and the farm into London. There, Londoners can pet farm animals – including goats – and some farms have fruit and vegetable gardens too. All operate projects and events aimed specifically at children.
Cape Town’s first city farm was opened at the end of last year, in the leafy inner city suburb of Oranjezicht. It’s been established on the site of a former bowling green and, as its slogan – From Bowling Green to Bowl of Greens – suggests, its work emphasises food growing. But although the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) will eventually produce organic vegetable boxes, its primary purpose is not, oddly, to produce food. In a suburb where no one goes hungry willingly, and where most properties have gardens large enough to grow vegetables, its aim is to foster community.
OZCF has grown out of the Oranjezicht Neighbourhood Watch. Based on the Rudy Giuliani principle of fixing broken windows, it keeps an eye on parks and open spaces, and helps to ensure that public buildings are well maintained. OZCF is part of an initiative that uses areas which would otherwise become run-down and crime ridden.
OZCF isn’t the only food-growing initiative in Cape Town’s middle-class suburbs. Based in Constantia, Soil for Life teaches people from all communities how to establish community gardens along organic lines; the Woodstock Peace Garden aims to bring the community together and to produce food; and Touching the Earth Lightly is pioneering rooftop gardening.
There is a strong link between urban agriculture and economic recessions. The example most frequently cited today of how community gardening can help unemployed, impoverished communities cope with the effects of the recession is Detroit. But this city has a long history of using urban farming to deal with depressions. In the 1893 depression, Detroit donated small lots of vacant land – known as Pingree Potato Patches – to the unemployed, who were able to grow enough to feed themselves, and then sell their surplus produce for cash. The project was so successful that it spread to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere.
In the 1970s, new interest in community gardening grew as an expression of urban activism and a new environmental ethic. Garden programmes emerged, such as New York’s Green Guerrillas and Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG). In 1976, the USDA sponsored the Urban Gardening Programme that established urban offices to promote vegetable gardening and community gardens in 16, later 23 cities. In 1978, activists from around the country formed the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) as a non-profit membership organisation.
Guerrilla Gardening – where vacant public land is planted without the permission of the authorities – was a product of the economic downturn of the 1970s.
Contemporary interest in community gardening and urban agriculture stems both from the recession as well as from a set of interconnected concerns about food safety, sustainable food production, the creeping power of Big Food to control every link in the food chain, and slowly rising food prices.
At Harvest of Hope – a vegetable box scheme run by Abalimi Bezekhaya, an urban farming project based in some of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs – this interest in the provenance of food has translated into increased demand for organic produce.
Urban agriculture is nothing new in Cape Town. Abalimi was established in 1982 to provide support to community gardens in Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu and surrounds. Today, in exchange for R100 from each gardener, it supplies training, compost, seedlings, and tools to around 2,500 individuals and between 55 to a hundred urban farms every year. These are run overwhelmingly by elderly, female pensioners, most of whom support five to six relatives. Those gardens which produce a surplus of vegetables – after the women have taken what they need and sold some over the fence – can become suppliers of Harvest of Hope. At the moment, between twenty and thirty gardens send vegetables to the project’s packing shed in Philippi.
The genius of the Harvest of Hope model is that it guarantees community gardeners a monthly income of R3,000 for as long as they supply vegetables for the box orders. They aren’t Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Langa’s only small farmers, though. Abalimi’s Rob Small reckons that there around three hundred community gardens in these suburbs, of varying size and productivity.
Importantly, what they do is to make vegetables cheaply and readily available in areas where fresh produce is difficult to find: small spaza shops tend not to sell fruit and vegetables. Those wanting to eat varied diets need to stump up the cash to travel further into the city, to large, expensive, supermarkets.
Most of the vegetables grown in these gardens remain within the communities. But close by – in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) – half of the city’s vegetables are cultivated. Cape Town is unique in South Africa in that such a large proportion of its fresh produce is actually grown within the city. Farmers have grown fruit and vegetables in the sandy soil of the PHA since the late nineteenth century. Today, the area encompasses about 2,370 hectares, and is split between smallholdings and larger commercial farms, which produce around 100,000 tonnes of produce every year. Some of these, like Skye Fehlmann’s Naturally Organic, have embraced sustainable, organic farming.
The area is, though, under threat. In 1988, 3,200 hectares of land were designated to horticultural use. Sand mining, illegal dumping, and encroaching informal settlements are all eating up land which could be used to farm. But all this pales into significance against the proposed development of a 472-hectare area. Heidi Swart explains:
In 2008 a company by the name of Rapicorp 122, in whose name the land is registered, lodged an application with the provincial government to change the land-use designation of the 472 hectares from horticultural to urban. Rapicorp proposed about 172 hectares of 20 000 mixed-density housing units, 41 hectares for industrial use, 26 hectares for mixed use and 157 hectares for open space and conservation.
Although the City of Cape Town turned down the application, in 2011 the Western Cape provincial government approved it. Luckily, though, the Rocklands group, of which Rapicorp is part, is now under curatorship following a Financial Services Board investigation. Only when that is resolved can the development of the PHA take place.
Preserving – and, indeed, extending – the PHA is important not only to keep the price of fresh produce low in Cape Town, but also because it is surrounded by desperately poor communities which would not usually have access to fruit and vegetables. Although still more expensive than staples like maize meal, white bread, and sugar, it is considerably cheaper to buy vegetables off the back of farmers’ trucks than in supermarkets. In other words, the PHA is absolutely essential to ensuring that these households remain food secure:
According to a survey of 1 060 low-income households [in Cape Town] conducted by the African Food Security Urban Network in 2008, 80% of respondents were food insecure. The study looked at various indicators of food insecurity, such as whether respondents went to sleep hungry, or whether there were times when there was no food in the house.
A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network that examined the horticultural area’s significance in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality found that without it the city would be ‘place[d] in extreme risk’ of food insecurity, with low-income households suffering the most. A 2009 report commissioned by the city had similar findings.
Cape Town’s official policy on urban farming commits the city to ensuring that urban agriculture will ‘fill form an integral part of future development planning’ and to supporting community groups involved in community gardening. It seems to me that not to protect the PHA contradicts this policy.
Rob Small describes Cape Town as ‘a farm with a city in it.’ Cape Town has a population of about 3.7 million, slightly more than half of whom live in the city’s informal settlements. When people speak of ‘Cape Town’ they tend to mean its older suburbs with their – still – mainly white inhabitants. It strikes me that so much of the city’s problem with urban agriculture is that its community projects maintain the distinction between the historically ‘white’ and wealthy, and ‘black’ and poor parts of the city. Projects based in Constantia, Woodstock, and Oranjezicht ‘reach out’ to ‘educate’ and ‘uplift’ the ‘poor’ (whoever they may be), ignoring the fact that so much of the city’s informal settlements are being farmed – and are exceptionally productive.
It’s old women in Nyanga and farmers in Philippi who are the key to ensuring the city’s future food security. They are the ones who should be deciding Cape Town’s urban agricultural policies.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.