Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Basketcase on trial - what I really feed my family

This piece appeared in The Irish Independent last week. The editor and I felt it was important in the wake of the horsemeat crisis to talk about the ins and outs of buying meat products and a quick guide from the horses mouth so to speak (bahahaha) on what's healthy and risky in terms of processed food is what consumers want right now. 

I feel that telling people only to buy organic or local food is not where its at, or something that most peoples income allows for. My grocery shop for my family of four is a mixture of the two - buying both local and supermarket products, and cooking really simple dishes that don't break the bank. All of us have been rattled by the horsemeat story and are shopping more carefully. A Which? survey in the UK shows substantial loss of confidence in the safety of processed meats. While 9 out of 10 customers felt supermarket food was very safe to eat before the crisis, the number has now dropped to 7 out of 10.Have a look and let me know if your food strategy has changed in the wake of the horsemeat crisis.    

Irish Independent 9th March 2013

Food Writer Suzanne Campbell - "What I really feed my family"

“Are chicken goujons safe to give the kids?” These are the sort of questions mothers ask me, especially since the horsemeat crisis began in January. As a food writer the story didn’t take me by surprise. I live in the countryside and keep horses; one which was destined for a meat plant before I gave it a home.

Over the past weeks I’ve done countless interviews for Irish and European media on the issue and in a bizarre twist, conducted a live radio piece on horse burgers while exercising my own horse. For me, horsemeat was the perfect storm; the under-regulated horse trade exploding into a Pandora’s Box of horrors for consumers. In 2009 I had spelled out these fears in the book “Basketcase: what’s happening to Irish food?” co-authored with my husband – journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes. Then as now, our warnings about the real cost of cheap food fell on deaf ears.

I’m a journalist and the mother of two young children so I also put a family meal on the table every day. Living in the Wicklow hills may be the foodie dream and I go to a lot of swanky food events but our home menu is far from Masterchef. I don’t spend a lot of money on food, I just keep things simple. When people ask me is something safe to eat, I’m honest. There are some foods I just wouldn’t eat and some surprises that I would. 

Spuds, lamb, summer salad, wild garlic pesto. Fairly uncomplicated
You will never see a ready meal in my kitchen. One spaghetti bolognese I examined recently contains just 16% meat. Food “extenders” and “fillers” often make up the rest, adding volume and taste to sausages, burgers, ready meals and any amount of things in our trolleys. The reason? They reduce food manufacturing costs by 10-30%.

I understand why many consumers buy ready meals. As a working mum I often finish my day with cooking the last thing on my mind. I get round this by always having meals in the freezer. When I cook a chilli beef, ratatouille, curry, Irish stew etc I make twice the amount and freeze a complete meal. This is the key to avoiding take-away on the way home from work or dropping into the supermarket in a flap and coming out with a huge bill and still nothing for dinner.

Goujons - do they have a texture like jelly?
The aforementioned chicken goujons I simply don’t buy or eat. I peeled open a chicken goujon last week that looked like MRM (Mechanically Recovered Meat). MRM has a texture like sponge. It is not allowed at present in European food manufacturing but businesses get around the law by using the “Bader process” to make virtually the same thing – meat recovered from sinews and scraps from carcasses.
The safety issue for me is what’s used to congeal these bits of meat back into a palatable foodstuff. I don’t eat anything “re-constituted” that doesn’t have muscle texture, including turkeys or chickens at carvery counters that look like footballs.
After our RTE documentary “What’s Ireland Eating” aired many people approached myself and Philip with fears about ham. We showed a process where ham joints were boosted to a huge size by hundreds of needles pushing water and nitrates into the flesh. Processed meats, including hams and salamis have been linked to colonic cancer. Imported rashers and ham has higher nitrite levels (up to 20%) than are allowed in Ireland so I always buy ham with Bord Bia quality assured label.

Billy Roll - I don't go near it

Look for ham (even packed slices of ham) cut from the bone where you can see muscle grain. Likewise, jelly-textured cubed chicken found in sandwich bars, and deli counters. Even if it’s covered in a heavy “Cajun” or “Tikka” dressing; most of this chicken comes already processed from Thailand or Brazil and rarely made from fresh Irish chicken.

Ireland imports 2.5 million chicken breasts a week. Many of these have been found by the FSAI to be gas-flushed with CO2 to preserve them, on sale with incorrect use-by dates and could be up to ten days old from as far away as the Ukraine. Butchers are my first choice for buying beef but I don’t buy chicken in some butchers as many imported chicken fillets are sold loose on their counters. At the very least this chicken is stale. I only buy chicken fillets if they are Bord Bia certified (in supermarkets), free-range or if I’m flush, organic. 

This carrot and parsley soup takes about 20 mins to make
In our house meat is not a central part in every meal. I make a soup (curried carrot and parsnip, leek and potato) about twice a week, and yes, I add cream. This could be a dinner in my house. As is also scrambled eggs with tomato and basil, simple spaghetti with Irish mushrooms and pesto, cous cous or quinoa salad with mixed leaves, chopped peppers, cumin, olives and salami.
We’ve one child who is a great eater, the other one is more tricky. I adopt the French approach with children; mealtime choice is - menu A or menu A. Research show some foods like lettuce have to be offered up to 21 times before they are eaten; I put it in lunchtime sandwiches, it gets picked out. Then one day it isn’t picked out and eaten from then on. So don’t give up.
For my food shop I buy meat and vegetables from shops in my local village, spending about thirty euro a week in each. I buy store cupboard foods in one big shop about every three weeks in either Superquinn or Aldi. I know many Irish farmers who produce own brand product for Aldi. I also buy a lot of their imported foods like kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, chick peas, chillies, herbs and spices. Choose what has the least added ingredients and cooks well.
Remember, the more players involved in a single food product, the more likely it is to go wrong. Yearly I buy half a lamb from my neighbour butchered into joints ready to cook or freeze. At the weekend I buy sourdough bread, Kilbeggan porridge oats, Ed Hick’s rashers and eggs from the local farm shop.

My family food spend is under 150 euro a week, not counting wine or craft beer which I splurge on now and again. If I wasn’t partial to French wines and Irish cheese I would probably be the most healthy person on the planet.
So what can we do to eat safely and not pay out a fortune? Keep your food chain short and keep things simple. It takes work but shouldn’t break the bank. I dislike patronising advice to consumers to only buy organic or local. Find a place on the food and cooking scale you are comfortable with. Ditch Masterchef, take the pressure off yourself and cook with freshness to get taste.
Six foods I wouldn’t eat
Chicken goujons
Billy roll or any ham with a clowns face on it
Huge glossy chicken fillets in independent retailers or butchers often sold at discount
Chicken in a restaurant or sandwich bar – unless stated on the menu it is imported
Breaded fish including salmon, I stay away from farmed salmon and buy wild smoked salmon as an occasional treat
Brightly coloured snacks or crisps. McDonnell’s and Keoghs are pretty additive free.

My unexpected favourites
Aldi’s Duneen natural yoghurt; I use it with everything; blitz with fruit for summer smoothies
Burgers – cook your own from mince or buy Aldi’s Aberdeen Angus 100% Irish beef; red meat is the best way to get iron into your system
Beans (without sugar) – unglamorous but a nutritious two minute meal heated on crusty bread
Smoked mackerel or herring costs about three euro a pack. Smashed up with crème fraiche and rocket makes a gorgeous topping on toast. Goatsbridge trout is so good eat it on its own.
Sodastream – invest in one. I drink two litres of sparkling water a day. Saved me a huge amount of cash and recycling of water bottles.


  1. Fabulous food, beautiful blog, beautiful photos. This one I’ll have to try. I am frequently gobsmacked by the range of products, tastes, techniques you cover…very inspiring.

  2. I'm with you on the natural yoghurt, beans and smoked mackerel/trout - but Sodastream? Nah! Bad memories of the fake coke flavour in the one we children ever so kindly gave our mother for her birthday one year. Think I'll stick with plain water...

  3. Helpful post Suzanna and can't help but think that if the realities of what food is made from were in the headlines, news or in everyone's thoughts more often, changes would be demanded and food producers wouldn't be allowed to get away with it.

  4. Love sodastream water as I´m addicted to carbonated water. Don´t go near the flavours.. Our well water here is very soft and not half as nice as our old water from Blessington

  5. Sometimes we have to face a lot of confusion when we found different opinion of different hundreds of articles related to same question. But I think now I am close to resolve my doubts after reading this blog.