Food today is attractively packaged, subject to health authority approval and a glance at the label will tell us the ingredients and, often, the calorific value of portions. But in light of recent scandals should we judge a foodstuff by its cover? Linda S. Heard reports...
Hygienically clean supermarket shelves and butchers wearing plastic gloves conspire to reassure us that the world has come a long way since carcasses were routinely hung-up outside butchers’ shops and eggs were courtesy of free-range hens rather than sterile batteries.
Britons were recently shocked and angered to learn that beef products sold in the UK were found to be contaminated with horse DNA. The discovery has tainted the reputation of some of the country’s largest foodstuff producers, including such giants as Nestle and Birds Eye, as well as major supermarkets like ASDA and Tesco which have vowed to reassess their sources amid accusations retailers are putting low prices before consumers’ health.
In reality, this particular issue has more to do with confidence than food safety. In many countries from Europe to Asia and South America the consumption of horse meat that has a sweetish flavour akin to venison is a culinary tradition but in others such as the UK, the US, English-speaking Canada, Australia and Ireland, eating horse is akin to munching on the family pet and, therefore, taboo. The French have been tucking in to horse meat since the French Revolution to assuage hunger and in 1866, the first butcher’s shop specialising in cheaper horse meat opened in Paris but even in times of severe deprivation Britons have traditionally preferred semi-starvation to putting Black Beauty’s relatives on their dinner tables.
When horse meat was discovered in frozen beef burgers earlier this year, the revelation led to widespread testing when, even more concerning to Muslim and Jewish communities, was one analysis showing that 23 out of 27 beef burgers tested contained pig DNA.
Britons’ level of trust in the food industry markedly declined following the advent of ‘Mad Cow Disease’ (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the 1980s that caused 226 deaths and resulted in the culling of millions of animals. An enquiry initiated by Tony Blair found that government officials were inclined “to sit on bad news” to protect the country’s meat industry. Indeed, former agriculture secretary John Gummer went out of his way to quell the nation’s fears by feeding a beef burger to his young daughter while the media’s cameras were rolling.
Then, in 1986, the UK’s former Health Minister Edwina Curry provoked a storm by announcing that most of Britain’s eggs were infected with salmonella and was promptly sacked. Naturally, the sale of eggs plummeted forcing authorities to pay producers millions of pounds in compensation. Nowadays, consumers are advised to eat eggs before their expiry date and to ensure they are cooked thoroughly so that both white and yoke are solid. Concerned purchasers can also look out for eggs laid by hens that have been vaccinated against the salmonella bacteria.
Those scares altered practices forever. Today, the British government exerts a stricter oversight of slaughter houses and takes scientific advice with the seriousness it deserves. Moreover, politicians have eschewed secrecy and are far more willing to make plans for worst case scenarios.
The British food industry has been disgraced on occasion, but the rest of the planet hasn’t been immune. A US consumer watchdog report following a February 2013 analysis of shop-bought meat by America’s Food and Drug Administration found that 81 per cent of raw ground turkey, 55 per cent of raw ground beef and 39 per cent of raw chicken parts contained strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The widespread practice of administering growth/weight boosting substances to animals has been blamed. Such resistance is communicated to consumers who may be forced to try several antibiotics before finding a type that is effective.
However, the West’s woes pale in comparison to China’s. Bird Flu still stalks Chinese poultry markets and has morphed into the more virulent H7N9 virus capable of direct transmission from bird to human; an even greater worry is its potential for human-to-human transmission. This is a severe infection with flu-like symptoms that often results in pneumonia, blood-poisoning and ultimately organ failure with roughly a fifth of those infected dying. As of early April, there were 27 deaths from the new strain. International specialists, including those from the World Health Organisation, are in country, advising the government on precautions and management.
The Chinese are known for their eclectic taste in food. Unlike most of us, even those who consider ourselves to be adventurous foodies, it’s not unusual to find on the menu, snake, monkey, sparrow, silkworms, seahorses, scorpions, black frogs – and ‘thousandyear- old eggs’; duck eggs coated with lime, ashes and mud before being soaked in horse urine for 100 days until the yolks turn green and the whites become dark brown. But even the Chinese draw the line when it comes to their protein sources, as the Guardian reported in April.
Writing from Beijing, Jonathon Kaiman says “You might have thought that China had long ago struck rock bottom in food safety, after a string of scandals involving glow-in-the-dark pork, exploding watermelons, fake eggs and melamine milk (that made 54,000 infants ill). But you would be wrong.” During the first quarter of this year, over 904 people have been arrested for “meatrelated offences” and the authorities have seized 20,000 tons of illegal products, he says. Crimes include the sale of rats prettied up with gelatin, nitrate and carmine coloring before being sold as mutton in farmers’ markets in Jiangsu Province and Shanghai.
Despite grim-sounding reports, there’s no need for hysteria, no need to go vegan. The majority of people go through their lives without suffering ill effects from food apart from an occasional stomach upset. If you’re keen to stay on the safe side, keep it simple, keep it recognisable – and follow the UK’s Food Standards Agency four C’s: thorough cleaning, cooking, chilling and avoiding crosscontaminations.
The good news for UAE nationals, residents and visitors is this. The furor over horse tainted meat in the UK, Europe and Russia prompted local food safety regulators to undertake analyses of meat products on sale in the Emirates when the UAE meat chain received a clean bill of health.