Sunday, 17 February 2013

Watching what we eat

I wouldn't be so keen to win this race if I were you.
(Pic : Paddypower.com)


I'm a little late coming to this, but as you know there's a scandal involving horse meat entering the food chain. It's currently being investigated by food authorities and police – at British and European levels.

It's also hit closer to home, as it appears a meat processing plant on the outskirts of Aberystwyth - involved in butchery of horse meat - has been implicated.

A few weeks ago, I touched on obesity in Wales. One thing I said might be a contributing factor towards rising obesity rates is an unawareness of what goes into processed foods. We generally don't make things "from scratch" as often nowadays and, by choosing convenience over food security, we have little idea about precise ingredients.

In food processing, raw ingredients – in this case meat – are sourced across European free market,  broken down, remoulded in a factory process, loaded with chemicals like preservatives, then neatly packaged, marketed, sometimes frozen, and transported to supermarket shelves across Europe. Like a common piece of machinery.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that as it generally keeps prices down and provides greater choice, but food is supposed to be a "natural cycle" of sorts – chemicals constantly being turned over in nature. Thanks to modern food processing, humans have managed to break that cycle and we've probably lost touch with our food as a result. That has knock on effects.

By letting others decide the ingredients in our food via
modern food processing, have we lost touch with
precisely what we put into ourselves?
(Pic : bristolfoodie.co.uk)

A point raised by an anonymous commentator on the obesity post are levels of things like salt, fats and sugars in food and their regulation. Maybe if there were tighter regulation of these it would help - not necessarily cut obesity - but prevent harmful side effects. Salt, for instance, increases the risk of strokes.

I'm surprised there hasn't been any statutory regulation of "harmful" ingredients in processed foods – even if it'll need to be led at a EU level due to the globalised nature of the food industry. The reason there hasn't is probably because these ingredients are seen as "essential" (i.e putting taste/marketability ahead of quality) – even at harmful levels.

I also doubt anyone picking up a "culinary delight" like a microwave lasagna is concerned about salt and fat levels, more the price tag. If the horse meat scandal had never broken, I'd predict most people would happily continued eating them, blissfully unaware that half a Epsom Derby card were in there.

There are at least three sides to obesity - diet, exercise and eating disorders (in the news recently, but in this case - binge eating/compulsive overeating).

On the diet side of things, the Assembly recently debated the Welsh Government's "Change4Life" campaign, which aims to ensure families make healthy choices when buying food.

It was noted that many poorer families are excluded from healthy options by cost and are increasingly reliant on things like food banks. An amendment to the debate motion was passed, calling for the Welsh Government to "address the link between poverty and poor diet." I'm aware some Communities First areas run food co-operatives to provide fresh fruit and vegetables, so there's something happening there already.

Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) held a short debate in January on a "Nutritional Recession" - rising food prices and its impact on lower socio-economic groups.

Also related to this, the Food Hygiene Ratings Act will establish a compulsory "scores on the doors" system to display food hygiene ratings at food establishments across Wales. Hopefully, it'll make the public more aware of such things.

At the risk of repeating myself from last time, the Welsh Government are trying at least and that's a good thing. It's just going to be very difficult for people used to buying/eating cheaper processed foods to switch to something different, perhaps more expensive too.

The Welsh Government funds projects like this "Cooking Bus"
that tours primary schools. But is this really enough?
(Pic : Gladstone Primary School)

Changing that will have to start in the education system. When I had cooking/home economics lessons, we generally ended up making something like a cake or a pizza – neither of which really qualifies as a healthy choice. That situation has likely improved, and the Welsh Government funds a "Cooking Bus" (well, lorry) that travels to primary schools to teach cooking. But is it enough? More concerns were raised on that recently.

I don't mean to go Jamie Oliver, but there's little point in all that if the food they're served or bring it at lunchtime is junk. It was recently highlighted in the Glamorgan Gazette that Parc Prison inmates have more spent on food – per head – than Bridgend County schoolchildren or Princess of Wales Hospital patients. That's probably because inmates live there 24/7, and patients and schoolchildren will have other meals provided for them at home (presumably at greater cost). However, the point remains valid.

So yeah, it needs money and there's not an awful lot of that around. But we need to teach children that food really does grow on trees - with a lot of hard work behind it - and doesn't appear out of thin air in a vacuum sealed factory package.

As I've pointed out before, the meat industry is important to the rural Welsh economy. It's fair to say that Wales has some fine natural produce. So why aren't we using it properly? We should be able to – quite easily – produce as much beef lasagna here as we need without Red Rum making his way into it via the supply chain.

There's still room for free (and more importantly, fair) food trade as we can't get what we want from Wales alone all year round. However, we could have strong food security in Wales if local supply chains were strengthened and we all took more care in deciding where we get our food from. That's a point raised by Leanne Wood recently.


I don't eat much meat, but I don't see how any meat eater – myself included - could be squeamish about eating horse. It's healthier than other meats – as long as it isn't loaded with chemicals. Other "exotic" meats are also healthier : ostrich, crocodile, alligator, kangaroo, insects of varying descriptions. All probably doing less environmental damage than cows. But if you're going to eat meat, it's strange to choose based on how cuddly an animal is, or whether it'll come home on an each way bet in the 3:50 at Chepstow.

I don't believe there's any moral high ground with regard food as ultimately it's all doing damage to something. It's probably best to treat food (and by extension, yourself) with a bit more respect. One part of that is understanding where it comes from and what's in it.

This horse meat scandal is a case of organised criminal fraud and trade descriptions violations than a threat to health. People will always try to cut corners, and as long as most of us remain hypocrites or ignorant when it comes to sourcing food it's going to happen.

But, for heaven's sake, if you buy something labelled as beef it should contain cow.

So instead of issues surrounding the meat itself, maybe this issue highlights the importance of well-funded and well-staffed environmental health, trading standards and veterinary services.

On a side note, one of the meat processing companies involved in this scandal is called Draap Trading – based in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Flip the name backwards to "Paard". In Dutch that means....horse.

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