Cheap food a tasty delusion hiding high costs and lack of sustainability

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

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.

Fast food chains are notorious for adding umpteen ingredients. Because McDonalds has a policy of transparency, in 2010 the New Economics Forum in Britain was able to work out that “a Big Mac (bun, beef patty, sauce, cheese slice, gherkin, onion, lettuce: seven components) contains more than 56 ingredients. There are 14 in the bun, 19 in the sauce, 8 in the pickle, and 12 in the cheese slice, which is only 55 per cent cheese. The beef patty, onion, and lettuce are all ‘100 per cent pure’, and the salt and pepper added to the burger haven’t been included.”

Fast food culture is now embedded virtually everywhere. As usual, we are trying to have it both ways in Ireland. We are trying to market ourselves as premier producers of “green food” with our “grass-fed beef”, while at the same time killing off the family farm and the local butcher and endorsing food on the run.

While there have been some good innovations, such as Bord Bia’s plans to establish the carbon footprint of every farm in Ireland, can these approaches co-exist with the inexorable trend towards industrialised farming? There are people who believe we need to stop eating meat entirely, if we are to achieve sustainability, which would be rather bad news for our economy.

More realistically, you have people such as Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, who argues that while it is absolutely necessary to reduce meat consumption, small-scale, local livestock rearing can be environmentally sustainable, especially when “animals are reared on non-arable land, fed on unpalatable-to-human grasses or food wastes, and used to transport nutrients locally in the form of manure”.

Some farmers would sneer at this as going back to the 1950s, and unsustainable simply because farmers could not make a living. But even those critics must acknowledge that scandals like dioxins in bacon and equine DNA in burgers are symptoms of a much wider problem that is not going to go away.

By eating less meat, we can both afford better quality meat and support producers who are willing to employ more sustainble practices. But it requires commitment and change – and it is so much easier to reach for a big, cheap, tasteless quarter pounder.

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