PhD Researcher Rebecca Sandover discusses what food labelling tells us, and what it doesn’t.
With the horsemeat scandal still unfolding, the central issue is do we know what we’re eating? The media narrative is one of distaste, disgust at eating hidden matter, complex food chains, uninformed moments of blame, as well as possible criminal actions. No matter what we think of eating horsemeat the central issue that is relevant in such an obscure, complicated market is that food labelling is central to our trust in the products we buy and consume. Without trust in the label, the food system as it is presently configured, fails.
Such complex food networks act as a veil shrouding the origins of our food. The distance between us as consumers and the spaces of food production are not only widening, but are becoming blurred and obscure. After the UK food scares of the 1980s- BSE, Salmonella in eggs and 2001 -Food and Mouth disease, the local food sector has arisen as an alternative to agro-food industries. The central device of organic and local food products is their ‘knowability’. Underlined through quality assurance schemes such as Red Tractor, Freedom Foods, Organic Certification etc., food bought can be understood as meeting a benchmark of quality. Not only is this good for us as consumers, it is a lifeline for farmers producing wildlife and welfare-friendly products.
However, there is a major flaw in seeing these schemes as the solution to the current crisis. The crisis exists in cheap, value range supermarket food where the costs have been shaved acutely. Such products are shipped between countries in order to find the cheapest mode of supply and construction, resulting in the use of degraded meat fillers and additives. The gulf between these products and those made by small-scale artisanal producers is huge. This encompasses a gulf in construction, freshness and proximity between consumers and producers but most importantly in convenience, cost and the transparency of production processes. They are so different from the value range burgers as can be, by intention. However by being so different they remain on only a margin of shoppers’ consumer radar. Many consumers have got used to buying cheap products, taking the descriptions on the front of packets on face value. Many commentators over the last few weeks have expressed how obvious it is that how such products are described cannot match their material reality.
It is true that many of these organic and local food products that ooze with vitality, are affordable. But only if you are in the know…In order to buy fresh, local vegetables that are no more expensive than supermarkets’, the consumer either has to source a weekly farmers’ market, or search out for a reliable veg box scheme. Or if you’re really in the know, you might grow your own veg and chickens – what could be a more transparent process? However, all of these processes require effort, added time or knowing that these options exist. Here the difference between affordable, traceable veg and meat is significant when it comes to price. Veg can be sourced affordably, if you know where, whereas meat comes at a cost. Meat eating is seen as a sustainability issue and there are campaigns to reduce its consumption, with the argument that by buying less a consumer may be able to afford better quality. It’s a great argument, but comes back to requiring the consumer to make a commitment to altering food habits, or having the means to alter them.
Such commitment to organic and local food products is still presently marginal. According to public health researchers those living in inner city areas with the least income have poor diets partly due to the local supply of convenience shops that sell no fresh produce. For such consumers a supermarket would increase their chances of eating healthily. Another obstacle for all sectors of society to eating fresh produce, is cooking skills. Without the basic ability to turn unprocessed food into tasty meals as urged by celebrity chefs etc., diets are limited to the processed, ready meal variety. So it’s to be welcomed that cooking is finally back on the school curriculum thanks to the work of many campaigners .
This post is about exploring the complexities of not only agro-food industrial supply chains, but at a more intimate level, our personal relationships to food. We cannot urge a blanket solution to the present food crises as the obvious one of eating only accredited food ignores the issues of accessing it for a wide section of society. Commitment to local food is a starting place for those with the means of not only money, time and knowledge, but also the confidence to transform such produce into enjoyable meals.
Presently Industry and government responses to this crisis are to investigate the DNA of food products, revealing further causes for concern. A recent report has found the fraudulent labelling of fish products in America. Trust will be further eroded, revealing how far we’ve come from knowing the food we eat. The alternatives require us as consumers committing to getting to know our food better. This process can take many forms from phone apps scanning QR codes, to getting our hands dirty with the wonky veg we’ve grown ourselves. However, this is a complex, deeply rooted problem that not only requires us getting to know our food better, but also requires government regulation and concern for the matter of our food, not just it’s profits.
Bowyer, Caraher et al. 2009- Shopping for Food Lessons from a London Borough, British Food Journal 111 (4-5)
Little et al. 2009- Gender, Consumption and the Relocalisation of Food:
A Research Agenda Sociologia Ruralis 49:3
School Food Plan (2013) Cooking on the Curriculum (online available at) http://www.education.gov.uk/schoolfoodplan/news/a00221479/school-food-plan-cook-curric
Huffington Post (2013) Seafood Fraud study by Oceana (online available at) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/21/seafood-fraud-study-mislabeling_n_2733377.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003&ir=Green
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