Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tesco suspends contract with UK farm after animal cruelty allegations

UK supermarkets including Tesco have just announced that they are suspending pork supplies from a pig farm involved in cruelty allegations. For the second time in recent months, undercover footage has emerged from the lobbying group Animal Equality appearing to show pigs being beaten and inhumanely killed.

Tesco has suspended its contract with the pork supplier saying that they expect "extremely high standards" for animal welfare and are urgently investigating what went wrong at the farm, which was also approved under the RSPCA's "Freedom Food" higher welfare standard. The Co-Operative Group has also asked its own label suppliers not to source from the East Anglian Pig company which is at the centre of the allegations.

For consumers, viewing images like the photos and video which have emerged from the Norfolk farms would put you off your breakfast sausages in a jiffy. I've filmed and interviewed farmers on pig farms in Ireland, and in the supersized version - pig units in Holland. This is the intensive end of the pig farming world - pigs are housed indoors in large numbers and like it or not, it's where most of our rashers, sausages, pork loin etc come from.

In both the UK and Ireland they are regulated under EU food and farming regulations which have codes of practice and welfare conditions to be met in terms of the pigs having space to move, correct ventilation, feed and veterinary care. And at the end of the pigs growing period, they are to be sent to abbatoirs with veterinary inspectors present to be humanely killed for the food chain.

Unfortunately this system does sometimes go wrong.

In England the RSPCA has released a statement saying it has visited the farm and has concerns about the handling of the sows, younger pigs and the way animals seemed to be inhumanely killed. It's the second time in recent months that pig farms, (both in Norfolk) have been found to be breaching guidelines. After the first Norfolk footage emerged, the farmer was found dead three days later. This terrible outcome followed an interview he gave saying he was unbelievably distressed that the animals he farmed were so badly treated by the workers he employed on his farm.

I feel that in Ireland that pig farmers are closer to what is going on on their farms, livestock handlers are more connected to what they are doing, and also to food and animal welfare standards. In Ireland, Bord Bia "Quality Assured" pork means farms have a extra layer of standards above the EU regulations for regular pig farms. They are inspected, audited continously and there is a high degree of traceability in the chain. In terms of pork you buy in the supermarket, "Quality Assured" label on packaging as it means the pig meat was farmed in Ireland under a highly regulated system. 

What happened in the UK should not be happening on pig farms anywhere in Europe, including Ireland. I read a lot about food and farming systems in the United States and one thing we have in bucketloads in this part of the world is regulation on how our food is produced, including the welfare of the livestock we eat. The good aspect of this story is that the supermarkets were very quick to react to consumer fears, and the off-putting idea that animals are suffering for your plate.

If you want to pay extra for animal welfare to the extent that it influences your shopping you can always buy free range pork from the many Irish farms now selling it. Pigs on these farms roam in the open and have a more natural "herd" structure. If you can't make that price point  - free range is going to be more expensive, look for Irish pig meat, Bord Bia approved or from small producer groups like Trully Irish.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Farting and Probiotic yoghurts - do they work?

Bulgar wheat, spinach, feta... all are pretty much superfoods for your gut. Yes it's a word that makes us wince sometimes so I'll say it again - gut, intestine, bowel...  that 26 foot tube that processes our food is more important than we think. Despite choosing foods with our eyes and on the basis of what looks attractive, our poor guts is where that food ends up, with mixed results. 
I looked at this topic earlier in the week for my series in The Irish Times on foods to improve particular aspects of your health. Again, magnesium came up as something we often don't eat enough of. Not only does it play a central role in the bowel - (it is the key ingredient in most over the counter laxatives as it draws water into the intestines to move contents along). Keeping things moving along prevents bloating and helps the absorption of what we eat into use for essential functions. 
Next time you're in the supermarket throw some packets of almonds and cashew nuts into your trolley as they are high in magnesium. If you fancy something with high levels of  magnesium, potassium and essential B vitamins, reach for an avocado. Yes avocados have lots of calories but they're great calories, as opposed to empty ones. 
Check out the full piece at the link below. I have plenty of tips on foods that are the real deal for your insides and if you've issues with wind, gas... farting - (let's call a spade a spade) - or a loved one has (our Labrador), have a look. I also have an explanation of the FODMAP diet which is proving successful at tacking IBS and some info on probiotic yoghurts - they may be an expensive, and useless addition in your shopping trolley.   

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Eggs au Urine

While most of us who love cooking are very fond of eggs, would you eat one that's been urinated on? Well in the Chinese city of Dongyang, this time of year is the special season for - eggs soaked in urine. Though quite possibly nauseating, the urine soaked eggs are a delicacy believed to have health benefits. In fact, at this time of year, locals with buckets come out in force - collecting boys' urine from the toilets of local primary schools. For the urine must be from boys under ten known in Dongyang as "virgin boys".

The eggs are then boiled in pots of the urine which are said to emit an unmistakable scent to those who pass the many street vendors selling it.

"If you eat this, you will not get heat stroke. These eggs cooked in urine are fragrant... and good for your health. Our family has them for every meal." So said Ge Yaohua, who runs one of the most popular "virgin boy egg" stalls to a Reuters reporter.

Apparently the eggs take a day to cook, first in their shells and then without them - simmering away in the urine for hours. Then they are sold at about twice the price of normal eggs.

While I love food traditions, the food safety issues of this particular one are legion. And don't even get me started on the taste. All that ammonia? But what's interests me most about this food combination is who in God's name came up with this idea? Coq au Vin is one thing but Eggs au Urine?

Maybe it's a question not worth asking... As always, Happy Eating x

Friday, April 6, 2012

The pizza that's saltier than seawater

Did you eat pizza lately? If you did, you're one of the 40% of us who eat one of Ireland's most popular foods every week. And if you live in London, you could be eating a pizza that's saltier than seawater. Yes sireee. Health authorities in the UK released an analysis of a pizza from the Adam and Eve restaurant in Mill Hill London which contained 10.57 grams of salt. At 2.73 grams of salt per 100, it means the pizza is saltier than Atlantic seawater.

Other pizzas analysed also showed high levels of salt and fat, some of which would give Elvis Presley's deep-fried peanut butter sandwich a run for it's money.

The trouble is, I really like pizza. Restaurant pizza, take-away pizza, home made pizza. There are many pizzas which are very healthy and clearly others which are not. Mostly these days I make my own, and hopefully by doing so I can control most of what goes into it. With fresh meats from my butcher and local cheeses it also tastes pretty good.

The problem with most mass-produced pizza is that it's full of salt. Salt is a major issue in terms of what we eat in Ireland as one third of us will die of heart-related illnesses. Eating foods with high levels of salt ramps up blood pressure, as your body has to hold on to much more water to get rid of it. And even if we don't add salt to our cooking or at the table, plenty of foods have hidden salt which we're totally unaware of.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece in the Irish Independent about the big offenders in the hidden salt category - even soups which we may think of as healthy often have large amounts of salt. Check it out for tips on what to avoid, and some tactics to beat the food manufacturers at their own game.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Eating - it's all emotional. No Seriously...

Feeling low.... fumble for the chocolate at the back of the cupboard? Missed your train, give yourself a boost with a milky latte? We all have certain foods we reach for when our plans, or our emotions hit the floor. Up to recently this was viewed as something that was our own fault - a behaviour rather then a pattern we couldn't account for.

But new research suggests that the Gut-Brain Axis - the relationship between our brains and what we eat is much more complex than this. For example 50% of Irish people who suffer Irritable Bowel Syndrome also have depression. Did their feelings of "lowness" bring on problems in their gut or vice versa?
The link between mood, depression and diabetes is also becoming clearer with a huge rate of those diagnosed with both type 1 and type 2 depression in Ireland also taking medication for depression.

We also now know that a nerve called the GABA nerve is very active is in how our neurotrainsmitters work and what feelings and emotions the brain produces. It's also heavily influenced by certain foods, and the messages these foods upload in terms of our emotional state.

One sure thing most of us reach for when feeling low is sugary snacks or refined carbohydrates - that tub of Ben and Jerry's or the white baguette sandwich smeared with mayonnaise. Eating refined carbohydrates boosts insulin and provides a clearer path for tryptophan - the amino acid linked to serotonin production, to act in the brain. No surprise then that sugar gives us an instant "high"- but we now know that this spike of wellbeing is physiological rather than emotional. It's just a pity that half an hour later you crash back down to earth.

I wrote about this cycle today in The Irish Times, and talked about some foods to throw in your trolley to break the flip-flop cycle of eating for your mood. It's a fascinating area as most of us forget that our brain needs fuel and fail to see there are simple foods we are neglecting and thus prolonging our pattern of sugar high and sugar crash eating. Check it out at the link below, and my personal tip - unsalted peanuts... great brain fuel and they taste pretty good.