|We consumers. We love cheap food|
Oh how we love cheap food, but then gasp in amazement that it might contain something unpleasant. This week’s shock discovery of horse DNA in Irish burgers grabbed headlines around the world. But are we, the consumers also to blame for this debacle?
Our lust for a bargain has been mirrored in the advancing market share captured by Lidl and Aldi in Ireland – we’ve fallen in love with the low-cost German model. At a recent dinner party several well heeled guests boasted how they’ve halved their grocery bill by going to discounters. I replied that Aldi is a great buyer of Irish food – purchasing everything from Aberdeen Angus beef, sparkling water, artisan cheese and yoghurts for its own brand range. Food producers whisper to me that Aldi pay on time with “no messing around”. They’re only too glad to board the German steamroller.
|Meat processing for burgers|
Yet our desire for cheap food and the lengths the food chain will go to supply it are central to how horse DNA got into our burgers. Supermarkets want profits up, share price up and they do this by driving prices down. Their goal is to pay suppliers as little as possible including those who process beef. But like any product, food has a bottom line from where it can be produced or not. Below that line cost-cutting can put consumers at risk. For this very reason I’ve campaigned at Oireachtas Committee level for a supermarket ombudsman to ensure farmers and food producers can produce our food cleanly and safely.
|Irish beef at its best; grass fed and highly traceable|
Last year Monaghan chicken farmer Alo Mohan told me they made 56 cent on every chicken. These same chickens are then retailed as low as 2.99 by the supermarket. How can a living breathing animal which has been nurtured, fed and cared for from birth to cost less than a cup of coffee?. And if the farmer is getting 56 cent out of a 2.99 – who is taking the largest cut? The supermarket.
|Chicken farmer Alo Mohan|
But who’s driving this? Us the consumers.
It may come as a surprise that food prices in Ireland are in fact artificially low and far lower relative to the UK. Since 2005 food prices in the UK have increased by as much as 35%. By comparison, Irish prices are just 3 to 4 per cent above their level of seven years ago despite the euro area as a whole increasing by 15%. In this same period, the price of oil and grain has made the cost of producing food explode. In Ireland, recession and weak consumer demand has kept the supermarkets in razor sharp competition, trying to keep the price of food low despite production costs rising.
As our incomes shrink and bills dropping onto the hall floor are ignored for days no one wants to go out and pay a whopping amount on groceries. But in our desire for value we can end up with products like the supermarket spaghetti bolognese I examined containing just 16% meat. What on earth is in the rest? Most likely what are called food “extenders” and “fillers”.
Extenders and fillers are used to add volume and taste to sausages, burgers, ready meals and any amount of things in our trolleys. They arose from the need to produce lower cost food and can reduce costs by 10-30%. This week our Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney described the ingredient that carried horse DNA into the Irish burgers as powdered beef-protein additive – a filler used to bulk up cheaply produced burgers.
|"Pink slime" was commonly used in US fast food chains|
Also common is mechanically separated material from animal carcasses known as mechanically deboned meats (MDM) where meat on bones is ground and processed into a product that then goes into other foods. You might remember the unpleasant “pink slime” story which broke in America recently. This MDM (resembling pink ice cream) was found in many fast food chain burgers. But once it was exposed that ammonia treated to “clean” the slime, fast food chains boycotted it in a desperate bid to calm consumers.
Most of this intense manufacturing takes place in Europe and looks to like the source of our imported horse DNA problem. It’s frustrating that Ireland has the best food ingredients in the world with demanding standards on food safety and traceability. Yet somewhere an ingredient manufacturer has cut costs, or deliberately defrauded other manufacturers and consumers. You won’t find many other countries doing the type of DNA tests the FSAI carried out on meats because frankly they would be too scared about what it might reveal.
What needs to happen quickly is identifying and punishing the supplier who sold this tainted ingredient into Irish burgers. In 1999 the Belgian dioxin crisis cost Belgium 625 million euro and the prime minister his job. Yet the Belgian father and son who knowingly sold machinery oil into animal feed causing widespread PCB poisoning received ridiculous suspended sentences of two years. The penalty for messing up the food chain should be an enormous headline-grabbing event to match the damage done by the event itself. Horse DNA in Irish beef burgers is not acceptable. Who is going to take up the tab for the damage done to our own food sector and jobs?
So what can we do to eat safely and not pay out a fortune? The answer is keep your food chain short and keep things simple. And let’s be honest, this takes work. But putting a small bit of thought into what I buy makes me feel safer about what I feed my children in particular. I buy my meat and vegetables from local shops in the village. I buy store cupboard foods in one big shop about every three weeks in either Superquinn or Aldi picking brands and suppliers I know and trust. Kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, butter beans, chick peas, chilli flakes and herbs are all imported products, my trick here is to buy what has the least added ingredients and cooks well.
If you only want to shop in the supermarket always buy Bord Bia approved beef, pork, chicken and sliced meats for kids lunches. I’ve been on these farms, seen the processing and this is the highest level of auditing in food you’re going to find. I never eat ready meals but cook my own – cottage pies, ratatouilles, warming chillis and soups, freezing half for another day.
Preaching only to buy local and artisan goes over most consumers heads and budget. But buying less complicated foods and ingredients is one way to bypass the extremes of food manufacturing. Remember horsemeat is also present in many snack foods and crisps sold on European supermarket shelves. The more processed something this, the more surprising the ingredients are on the label. Keep things simple is the key, buy Irish and above all enjoy your food. Our food sector employs 200,000 Irish people, let’s hope it can weather this storm.