The scandal began in mid-January in the United Kingdom. An embarrassing food scandal that has been shaking the media in Western Europe and keeping the readers worried, incredulous, and sometimes gagging. The citizens of Her Majesty have, unaware and for quite some time, been eating horse meat in the erroneous belief it was beef. Major supermarkets led by have admitted to selling frozen and ready-meals containing ground horse meat, supplied by a Swedish giant Findus. Soon after, the scandal spread to continental Europe. About seventeen European nations have already become implicated. Investigations into slaughterhouses, meat suppliers and food processors are ongoing. In mid-February the French officials established that a meat processing company in southwest France had intentionally sold tons of horse meat as beef to client food companies operating in 13 countries. There are other producers and other suppliers implied, too.
Investigators have now established that the frozen horse meat was acquired from Cypriot traders, which had subcontracted orders to traders in the Netherlands who in turn were supplied from an abattoir located in Romania. A supply chain consisting of Cypriot-registered factories based in the Netherlands buying meat in Romania to sell to a company in France, selling in turn to a Swedish company operating in Britain, is undoubtedly undesirable. Why should our food go through so many channels, with each middleman taking a profit before it gets on our table, and why should we believe that it is still food?
The presence of horsemeat is almost reassuring compared with some other horror stories that circulate around meat production. What is alarming is not so much the fact that people have been tricked (although the scale of the fraud is alarming) but the fact that food is now an industrial product with a complicated supply-chain. It is generated wholesale and distributed across a vast area (the European market has over 500 million consumers) and sometimes it has very little in common with the name under which it is sold. This last phenomenon is certainly not new, as during World War I and II people were substituting chicory for coffee, margarine for butter and eating a lot of other nasty tasting substitutes. But in our age of abundance, with supermarket shelves jammed packed with produce, why is the quality of food deteriorating so much?
The sad fact is that the market is merely doing its best to respond to the insatiable demand for cheap food. Good food costs more than bad and we are reluctant to pay the extra, sometimes because we can’t and sometimes because we won’t.
The presence of unadvertised and unwelcome meats in products sold as beef should hardly come as a surprise if you chose to buy a dozen frozen hamburgers for L1.50. It must just mean that you are either not concerned about or cannot afford to worry too much about its contents. When talking about meat, the Czechs are big fans of all things smoked, cured and otherwise processed. While only a handful of places in the capital city sells really good meat cuts from well-reared animals, mostly imported, everywhere you can buy sausages, “spekacky”, salami. But try to read the labeling next time you reach to the supermarket shelf for the spekacky on special at CZK36/kg. Content is at least 20% of water, and then soy flour, potato starch, food colouring to give them more appealing look, flavor enhancers which make them taste better, polyphosphates E450 and E451, ascorbic acid E300 and other food preservatives and stabilizers to make them last ridiculously long, raising agent, animal fat, oh, and some meat, probably not more than 30%. Technical salt from Poland, possibly. Antibiotics, very probably (not likely to be found on the label, though).
Well-meaning people on various organic and other websites in Europe advise to buy “local” and from “a trusted source”, such as “buy from a good butcher rather than from a supermarket” because supermarkets are one of the villains of the pantomime. Problem in the Czech Republic of course is that there are literally no butchers. While there is a “reznictvi” on every corner, these are the very same shops, alongside with “pekarstvi”, which do exactly the same as 25 years ago, under real socialism – distribute generic produce prepared and portioned somewhere else, in an industrial-size plant or abbatoir. In reality, the friendly local butcher is already becoming somewhat folkloric even in Western Europe. According to the UK National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, the number of butchers in the UK has fallen from 30,000 to 6,000 in the past 20 years. Many blame supermarkets for the unfair competition. Before long, we will be blaming not supermarkets but the internet for this sad state of affairs.
In central Europe, which did its best for 50 years to make away with any local food producers and retailers, people are not even debating this phenomenon. Supermarkets run by international companies largely replaced the old Soviet-style food shops and of course their price policies do not give much room for independents to compete with. It also seems, that Czechs are even more price sensitive when it comes to food purchases, than other EU citizens and thus, although the evidence is anecdotal, even the foreign supermarkets have gradually gone down the quality ladder to sell large quantities of very inferior food. According to data from the Czech Statistical Office, Czech households spend on average slightly over 19% of their income on food. This figure has been declining steadily from 23% in 1999. Germans, by comparison, are spending more than 20% of their income. The average salary in the Czech Republic is currently little over CZK 24,500, i.e. around EUR 980. The average salary in Germany is EUR 3,650. As Czech agriculture doesn’t exactly massively benefit from the EU agricultural subsidies, there is no reason to conclude food should be or indeed is cheaper here than elsewhere. It is also unlikely that Czechs would eat less than their neighbors. You can do the rest of the math yourself.
Sad to say but cheap food is also poor quality food. According to many nutricionists, medical doctors, biologists and other scientists, quality of food produce in our stores today is at an abysmal low. Health scares follow one after another. Everyone probably still remembers the well-publicised horrors of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as the mad cow disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle, which was first diagnosed in the UK in 1986 and to-date caused 210 human deaths. An official British inquiry into BSE concluded that it was caused by cattle, which are normally herbivores, being fed the remains of other cattle, as well as sheep, in the form of meat and bone meal (MBM).
In 2011, Germany and to a lesser degree 15 other EU countries recorded a large number of infections from E-coli O104:H4, infecting 3,950 people of whom 53 died. The particularly aggressive E-coli strain behind the epidemics was of an entirely new, previously unknown variety. According to the findings of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 80% of antibiotics consumed in the US are fed farm animals. The statistics are likely very similar in Europe. This is not because the animals need treatment but so that they grow faster. This in turn fast creates new strains of drug-resistant superbugs that threaten human health. After 35 years of procrastination over this issue, in April 2012 FDA issued a statement giving the food industry three years to voluntarily(!?) stop using antibiotics to make food animals grow faster. Why voluntarily? Because, states the FDA, it would be “too costly to try to enforce a ban”.
Here is another worry. Processed food we consume these days is packed full with chemically produced preservatives such as sorbic and benzoid acid, sodium nitrite, various sulfites, antioxidants such as BHA, BHT, TBHQ and many other, nasty sounding chemicals. The benefits and safety of many artificial food additives, including preservatives, are the subject of debate among academics and regulators specializing in food science, toxicology (!?), and biology. Some modern synthetic preservatives have been shown to cause respiratory or other health problems such as asthma. In one study, children exhibited increased hyperactivity after consuming drinks containing sodium benzoate or artificial food color and additives. The use of a large variety of food additives remains largely unregulated, and data provided by the food industry to regulators is deliberately so patchy that only limited research can be conducted into health safety of many commonly used additives and foods.
The interesting thing about the decline in quality of food consumed is that it has coincided with what many people consider a newfound passion for cooking. The truth is that we enjoy talking and reading about food and we have an immense appetite for watching it on television. But we also cook less than any previous generation. We eat more in restaurants, gobble up a lot more fast-food and, in particular, consume more processed food.
I would like to make a recommendation here, but I am really not sure what to say…