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Posts tagged ‘The People’s Supermarket’

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.

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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.

Bananas

This term a colleague and I are teaching a course on the 1960s to our third-year students (who are uniformly lovely – henceforth I shall only teach third-year students, Head of Department-willing). I’ve spent the past two lectures on the counter-cuisine, a movement located mainly in California from around 1966 onwards. Aside from the loonier fringes represented by the Diggers and some members of the back-to-the-land movement, the most durable remnant of the food counterculture was the co-operative movement. Over five thousand buying clubs and co-operative groceries were established between 1969 and 1979. Warren Belasco explains:

Although many consumers flocked to these hip stores just for the cheaper, healthier food, co-op organisers frequently had a more ambitious agenda: using socialised food distribution as a starting point, they hoped to establish a decentralised, democratic, alternative economic network that would sustain an oppositional culture and eventually subvert the wider society.

One woman, who was a member of the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-Op remembers:

Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot dairy cooperative in Vermont – for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.

One of the things which struck me as I wrote these lectures was how similar the present food revolution – whatever that may be – is to the counter-cuisine: as the Diggers distributed free food at Golden Gate Park in 1966, using food discarded by supermarkets, so organisations like This is Rubbish raise awareness about food waste by ‘skipping’ – collecting fresh produce past its sell-by date and then serving it in free feasts. The amazing People’s Supermarket provides an alternative to supermarkets by being run along co-operative lines.

As the co-operatives of the 1960s went out of their way to support local producers – as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse (founded in 1971) bases its menus on what local organic farmers are harvesting – so now eating ‘locally’ is seen as one of the best ways of eating responsibly and sustainably. ‘Locavorism’ offers an alternative to a globalised, industrialised food system which stocks supermarkets with strawberries – flown halfway across the world – in the middle of winter.

But our food supply has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in the 1870s, improvements in transportation meant that Canadian and American wheat fed Europe during one of the worst harvest failures of that century. But the excitement many felt during the twentieth century at the prospect of relatively cheap pineapples and papaya grown abroad and flown and shipped to Western supermarkets, has been replaced by a deep concern about the environmental cost of unseasonal eating, and the power of Big Food.

There is another reason to think twice about food shipped in from abroad: its political cost.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s eye-poppingly good Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011). He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:

Offshore business is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders. To get an idea of how artificial it can be, consider the banana.

Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl. The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain. The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you.

So far, so obvious. But then it becomes more interesting:

The second route – the accountants’ paper trail – is more round-about. When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the final profits generated, from a tax point of view? In Honduras? In the British supermarket? In the multinational’s US head office? How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs? Nobody can say for sure. So the accountant can, more or less, make it up. They might, for example, advise the banana company to run its purchasing network from the Cayman Islands and run its financial services out of Luxembourg. The multinational might locate the company brand in Ireland; its shipping arm in the Isle of Man; ‘management expertise’ in Jersey and its insurance subsidy in Bermuda.

Say the Luxembourg financing subsidiary now lends money to the Honduras subsidiary and charges interest at $20 million per year. The Honduran subsidiary deducts this sum from its local profits, cutting or wiping them out (and its tax bill). The Luxembourg’s subsidiary’s $20 million in extra income, however, is only taxed at Luxembourg’s ultra-low tax haven rate. With a wave of an accountant’s wand, a hefty tax bill has disappeared, and capital has shifted offshore.

What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax.

About two-thirds of global cross-border world trade happens inside multinational corporations. Developing countries lose an estimated $160 billion each year just to corporate trade mispricing of this kind. That much spent on health-care, Christian Aid reckons, could save the lives of 1,000 under-five children per day.

In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.

I’m sure that Shaxon chose deliberately to use Honduras as an example. Until 1970, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have inkling about the United Fruit Company’s murky past:

The gringos…built a separate town across the railroad tracks with streets lined with palm trees…. The section was surrounded by a metal fence topped with a band of electrified chicken wire which during the cool summer mornings would be black with roasted swallows. No one knew yet what they were after, or whether they were actually nothing but philanthropists, and they had already caused a colossal disturbance…. Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of the harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of the town, behind the cemetery.

The coming of the Americans – all of them employees of an unnamed banana company – is the cause of the ‘events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow’, chief of which is a massacre of striking workers. The employees of the banana company decide to down tools because of low pay and their appalling working conditions – something justified by the ‘mournful lawyers’ of the banana company on the grounds that

the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. …it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.

Caught in this ‘hermeneutical delirium’, the striking workers are at the mercy of the banana company and the army, sent to quell their action. The strike ends with a massacre in the town square, when soldiers turn their automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.

This is a description of a real event, the massacre de las bananerasthe banana massacre – in Ciénaga, Colombia, on 6 December 1928. Garcia Marquez’s ‘banana company’ was the United Fruit Company, which hired labour only through local agents to avoid having to comply with Colombia’s labour laws. When Colombian workers demanded better conditions and formalised contracts, their strike became the biggest in Colombian history, and came to an end when the Colombian army opened fire on peaceful protestors in Ciénaga.

The term ‘banana republic’ was coined by O. Henry in his anthology Cabbages and Kings (1904) in his account of his brief stay in Honduras – on the run from an embezzling charge – to describe a country run for the profit of a small elite of politicians and businessmen. The business in question was the United Fruit Company – and the term could be used to describe most of the Latin American countries in which United Fruit operated.

Founded in 1909, United Fruit emerged as the largest North American banana importer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its success was due partly to its strategy of manipulating governments into allowing it to pursue its interests, mainly by excluding all other opposition. It created monopolies by paying local producers higher prices than its competitors – and then dropped these prices to well below acceptable levels once the rivals had left the market, often impoverishing its suppliers.

When United Fruit began cultivating its own plantations during the 1930s, it did so across Latin America. If one of its divisions succumbed to Panama disease (Fusarium cubens), the company simply abandoned it – and those workers – and destroyed all the infrastructure which would have allowed other companies to begin farming there again once the plants were rid of the fungus.

To top this, the company was not averse to manipulating governments through bribery and intimidation, and sponsoring the odd coup d’état. United Fruit lobbied hard for the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, when the left-leaning Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán – who had expropriated land claimed by the company – was replaced by the rightwinger Carlos Castillo Armas.

As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem ‘La United Fruit Co.’ (1950):

When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptised these countries
Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:

It seems that Chiquita still engages in questionable practises, other than doing its best not to pay tax. An investigation into Chiquita’s business dealings in Latin America during the late nineties alleged that the company bribed officials, used dangerous pesticides, employed its workers in appalling conditions, and illegally maintained a monopoly on banana production.

In 2003, Chiquita admitted to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The company also allegedly provided AK-47s to the group. Chiquita said that the payments were to protect its workers, but the Colombian authorities reject this, arguing that they were meant to allow Chiquita to continue producing bananas and to discourage labour unrest. It’s difficult to believe Chiquita’s claims as it becomes clear that nearly all of the victims of the AUC were Colombian workers.

So what are earnest locavores to do? They could stop buying bananas altogether, along with other imported produce. I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being able to support farmers in Kenya. We know that the distance that food travels between producer and plate is not necessarily linked to its impact on the environment: a ready meal made in a local factory may have a bigger carbon footprint than string beans grown in Tanzania. Another alternative would be to buy certified, Fair Trade products.

But, even so, Fair Trade can have only a limited impact. The problem with Fair Trade is that it asks consumers – those at the end of the food chain – to make the choices which will change a whole food system. This, particularly during a recession, is absolutely impossible. For real change to happen, we need a fundamental reform of both political and economic systems:

Fair trade alone cannot address the core problem of excessively concentrated markets in which a handful of overpowerful transnational corporations dictate terms of trade and suck profits up into their own coffers.

What is needed for really fair trade is a more equitable distribution of the money in the chain. That will only be achieved with a shift in power which requires political action.

Which is why, oddly, getting Chiquita to pay its taxes is the first step in creating a better and fairer food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Warren Belasco, Review of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture by Craig Cox, The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 853-854.

Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Enforcing Business Contracts in South America: The United Fruit Company and Colombian Banana Planters in the Twentieth Century,’ The Business History Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 181-212.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (London: Penguin, [1967] 1973).

Mark Moberg, ‘Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,’ Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28, no. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.

Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, revised ed. (London: Vintage, 2012).

Other sources:

Anthony Ashbolt, ‘From Haight-Ashbury to Soulful Socialism: Culture and Politics in the Movement,’ AJAS, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 28-38.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988, revised ed. (London: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Andrew Kirk, ‘Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics,’ Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 374-394.

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