Friday, 8 March 2013

Read the label

I have a confession to make. I think it’s hilarious how much of a lather the Europeans, the British in particular, have got themselves into over their latest beef crisis.

In case you haven’t heard, the Brits discovered a few weeks ago that a very large proportion of the processed beef products they consume, things like frozen beefburgers and lasagne, things they’d been led to believe contained nothing but beef, in fact contained traces of horsemeat as well.

Their reaction has been a bizarre mixture of outrage, disgust and surprise. Unfortunately I think only the first of those is justified.

The Brits have every reason to feel outraged, but only because they were deceived. The labels on the packaging of their processed foods said they contained beef and in fact contained other meats as well. They were lied to and they have the right to feel abused because of that. When any of us buys a product we have a right to know what it is, what it contains and what we can do with it. When I buy a product which says it’s beef I want beef to be the only meat it contains. Not pork, chicken, donkey or horse.

But that’s the only crime that’s been committed. So far the investigations seem to have shown that it’s not the stores selling these products that are at fault. It seems that at some point between the abattoirs and the stores someone added horsemeat to the beef to make money. In the countries where horsemeat is popular it’s much cheaper than beef so diluting expensive beef with cheaper horsemeat allows someone to make greater profits.

Their other reactions are less justifiable. Their disgust at discovering they’ve been eating horse is just silly. It’s just a different meat. It’s not as if a Jew or a Muslim has secretly been given pork, or a vegetarian was given meat, anyone who can eat beef can eat horse and the fact that they didn’t notice is surely evidence enough that there’s no real difference.

The Brits are just being squeamish and that’s not a good enough reason to be disgusted.

What surprises me most is the surprise that the Brits are expressing. How did they not expect producers of processed meat products to cut corners and try and make extra money? When you demand very cheap beef products you have to understand that the product you get is going to be rubbish, at least in the UK. The situation with beef is slightly different in Botswana. Although we all know that our beef industry is in crisis, it’s a different sort of crisis, it’s not about the quality of the produce. I think it’s safe to assume that the beef we buy in local stores is of fairly high quality.

The other reason I’m not sympathetic towards the Brits is that they have completely lost any connection they ever had with how food is produced. Their national commitment to feeding their families with as little effort as possible is to blame. A whole lot of Brits seem to think that a meal is just something you take from a freezer and microwave; preferably something they bought as cheaply as possible. So why are they surprised that these cheap, processed meals turn out to be exactly what they paid for?

I have a personal confusion. Why would anyone want to eat a frozen, mass-produced burger anyway? Certainly not here in Botswana. Fresh minced beef, an onion, lots of herbs, salt and pepper and 10 minutes of your time is all you need to make a burger that will be infinitely better than anything the mass-market meat-processing industry can produce. My 14-year-old son makes them this way and they are without doubt the best I’ve ever had.

The most recent development is that the situation seems to be similar in South Africa. According to a BBC report a study by Stellenbosch University “found that 99 of 139 samples contained species not declared in the product label.” Traces of soya, goat, donkey and water buffalo were found in a variety of burgers and sausages they tested.

There’s a lesson from this crisis for the Brits, but also for us, and that’s about labelling.

It really is very important that we at least glance at the labels on things we buy, food most importantly. I think we all know, don’t we, that we should be able to identify everything we stick in our bodies?

Last week my son (the burger maker) spotted expired goods on a supermarket shelf. To their credit the store immediately removed them but why were they there at all? Why hadn’t the staff done a check on the expiry dates on the labels? Isn’t that basic practice? Clearly not.

That’s why it’s up to us to check labels for ourselves. It’s also up to us to be rational about expiry dates. I don’t think apples need them, you can just tell if an apple is OK to eat, as you can with almost all fresh produce. Your sense of sight, touch and smell should be enough. The danger is with packaged goods, the things we buy that come wrapped in cellophane. We can’t open them in the store to have a prod and a sniff, we have to rely on the labels to tell us if the products are likely to be OK.

Every time you buy milk, meat, cheese, eggs or anything else that easily goes rotten, you MUST check the label. Don’t trust the store to do it for you. Trust your sense of smell and before you allow anything into your body, by any means, make sure you’ve protected yourself.

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