Cheap food a tasty delusion hiding high costs and lack of sustainability
One of the things most likely to make you feel old is to be asked by a younger colleague who Larry Goodman was. Is, you correct her. He’s 70-something, and very spry.
So you try to explain that in the last century, the whole country tried and mostly failed to grasp the intricacies involved in our government providing insurance for the beef industry, and how it all went horribly wrong because Saddam Hussein had the gall to start a war that interfered with an Irishman trying to make an honest living out of Irish beef.
By this stage, you realise that to have any chance of understanding, you had to be there, and she wasn’t. So you give up, because you realise that although she has probably spent the day laughing at steadily more crass jokes about Shergar and burgers, her day will come.
Some day, she will have to explain to someone younger how one of the few success stories of the Irish economy, the export of food and drink, was threatened by the discovery of equine DNA in supermarket burgers, and her listeners won’t understand how that was possible. And there will probably be a 100-year-old Larry Goodman still around somewhere, embroiled in a controversy about beef.
But joking aside, much as it might be nice to scapegoat Mr Goodman, the problem lies far deeper than any one individual or company. The biggest problem lies with our belief that we can have meat that is simultaneously high quality and very cheap in the freezer section of our local supermarket.
We love our burgers. Apparently, we ate about €23.7 million worth of fresh and frozen burgers last year. In a recession, the cheaper burgers are likely to make an appearance on kitchen tables where they have not been seen in years.
But cheap food is a delusion, because cheap food hides very high costs not only in terms of the environment, but also in cut-throat competitiveness.
Supermarket chains can demand prices from meat producers that are completely unsustainable. And yet Irish beef and other meats in general are very good. But we, as consumers, demand unrealistically low prices, which supermarkets enforce.
So if a bit of equine DNA from a cheap source of beef outside of Ireland inexplicably ends up in a burger, it should not really be a shock. If industrial scale production and processing to keep costs low become the norm, so do scandals like this.
Even when it’s not equine DNA, an awful lot of adding stuff to food to keep it cheap goes on, leading to all sorts of problems. One of my children has a bad milk allergy. One day, he had an allergic reaction after eating rashers prepared at home. It had never occurred to me to check rashers for milk products, but on inspection, there it was – milk protein.