Why did the chicken cross the continent? So it could go cheap, cheap, cheap


Waiter, waiter – there’s a pun in my burger. And I’m failing to see the funny side.

It seems to me that behind much of the nervous tittering brought on by last week’s revelation that Tesco’s Value Range beefburgers contained up to 29 per cent horsemeat, there was more than a hint of snobbery. In some quarters, including on social media, the unspoken consensus seemed to be that anyone mad enough to buy cheap burger products got what they deserved.

But if people think that – just because they can afford to buy top-notch burgers – they are guaranteed food of sound origin, think again. Even if you avoid supermarkets and buy all your meat from craft butchers, even if you never eat processed foods and read your kids Jamie Oliver books at bedtime, how smug can you really afford to be about the provenance of the food you eat?

In a survey by Safefood carried out nearly five years ago, Irish consumers listed the country of origin of their food as one of their top-five concerns when shopping. And yet, until 2011, if you bought an “Irish” labelled chicken fillet marinaded in spices and ready to be popped in the oven, it might just as easily have taken its first breath in Thailand as in Tipperary.

For more than 15 years, supermarkets and butchers had been – perfectly legally – buying cheap meat products (other than beef) from countries such as Thailand and Brazil, sprinkling them with spice or breadcrumbs, and relabelling them as “Irish”.

Following years of protest from consumer organisations, the EU got its act together in 2011 and issued a directive stating that the country of origin must be included on all poultry, pig, goat and sheep products.

When this measure is implemented into law next year, it will apply at butchers’ counters and shops, as well as in supermarkets.

But at the moment, it remains a guessing game. Earlier this week, I found myself in my local craft butcher shop, on the hunt for something for dinner. (By

“something”, I invariably mean chicken; according to Safefood, it is “the Irish consumer’s protein of choice”.)

There was no shortage of it on display in this clean, attractive little shop: there were chicken legs, chicken thighs, chicken kievs, stuffed chickens, rolled chickens, whole chickens and chicken-breast fillets. The fillets were lean and plump and on offer at a bargain four for €5.

Nearby was a tray of identical looking fillets – except they cost €6.50 for four. The difference was that the €6.50 fillets were branded Irish and the other, unlabelled ones were Dutch, the butcher explained. But he couldn’t enlighten me on why they were cheaper than home-produced ones, despite having been shipped here from Holland, which is an import hub for meat products from outside the EU.

At the butcher’s shop over the road, Irish chicken fillets were on sale alongside chicken kievs of no stated nationality.

In the third butcher’s I tried, the chicken fillets were described as Irish; the chicken carcasses on sale beside them had no country of origin displayed.

By contrast, all the meat in my local Tesco was branded with its country of origin, including a pack of chicken fillets in breadcrumbs, which came from somewhere called “the EU and Thailand”.

At Supervalu, the butcher confidently informed me that all his chicken was Irish, but several products were being sold in packaging that offered no clue as to the country of origin.

Should consumers care where their meat comes from? That’s a matter of personal taste. The 2012 Safefood report on the chicken industry says there is no health issue with meat being shipped in from overseas; the primary concern is the impact on domestic producers.

I’m not sure that the impact on domestic producers would be my top concern – at least, not having read this extract from the report describing the processes chicken fillets go through as they make their way from Thailand or Brazil to Ireland.

“On import, European processors tumble or inject defrosted imported chicken fillets with water and binding agents such as animal proteins . . . (including gelatine, blood, whey protein, spray-dried beef and pork protein, some of which may be mechanically recovered) . . .

“The chicken breasts are packed into 10kg boxes and frozen prior to distribution throughout the EU, including ROI and NI . . . In butcher shops, it is possible that these products could be sold directly to consumers as raw chicken breast fillets, either in a frozen or unfrozen state.”

It goes on: “Fillets with added ingredients that have been frozen and refrozen at different stages in the food chain may be sold in establishments as ‘fresh chicken’.’’

Not all that appetising, is it? But if you’ve dined out recently and chosen chicken from the menu, chances are it was one of these frozen, defrosted, tumbled, injected, frozen and defrosted fillets you tucked into: 90 per cent of all chicken meat used in the catering industry originates in this way.

The report highlights other, less-than-edifying industry practices, including the “relabelling” of meat to change the use-by date, sometimes more than once. This is not illegal, provided it is done safely. However, a 2010 survey by Safefood found that 8 per cent of butchers couldn’t actually give a use-by date; 23 per cent offered dates for which they had no basis; and the same proportion gave a use-by date that was unrealistic.

In the short term, what the great horsemeat scandal of 2013 has done – besides littering newspapers, websites and the airwaves with the obligatory Black Beauty jokes – is to hit sales of cheap supermarket burgers.

What it should do in the longer term is serve as a reminder of how big supermarkets have changed the way we all eat – even those of us who never shop in them. No matter where we shop or what we spend, we have a right to know what we’re buying. Otherwise, the joke is firmly on us.

Damaging the vegan brand

For all my concerns about the provenance of the meat we eat, there’s one thing that puts me clean off veganism. And that’s the latest stunt from one follower of that diet/lifestyle: human branding.

In London, a vegan named Becky Folkard – who likens herself to a suffragette – plans to brandish a burning iron and stamp three human volunteers with it in March, to protest at a treatment that, according to farming representatives, hasn’t been carried out on animals for years.

But never mind that. Folkard says if just one person researches a vegan lifestyle because of it, “it will have been worth it”.

Funnily enough, she has no plans to volunteer for branding herself.

O'Reilly is a real hero in the Armstrong saga

The motivation behind Lance Armstrong’s public purging of his guilt to Oprah Winfrey became more overt following the second interview last week, in which he said he “selfishly” hoped the TV confessional would prompt the anti-doping agency Usada to lift its ban.

Sports audiences can be surprisingly forgiving – some people will always turn out to see talent in action, even if it is talent that has been massively, grievously compromised. (They may not buy the jersey he’s wearing, though.)

So yes, it is possible fans might, in time, choose to overlook the systematic doping; the barefaced lies; the spectacular hubris; and even the participation in the destruction of a sport he insists he loves. But I’m not so sure his image will ever recover from the fact that he used the word “whore” about one of his accusers, Irish woman Emma O’Reilly.

There is something particularly stark and violent about that word; a man who would use it about a former colleague who is one of several who has blown the whistle on him cannot be much of a man at all.

Speaking to BBC radio this week, O’Reilly said she was considering legal action against him.

“In this day and age women should not be spoken to, and spoken about in the way he did.”

But then she added: “I also feel that one of the options I should examine is just leave this and get on with my life . . . I think a bit of compassion should be shown. Maybe give him a chance, let him show true contrition.”

Whatever she decides, O’Reilly is a greater hero than he ever was.

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