Crippling costs, bad weather and disease have hit the countryside hard – and left the future of British food in jeopardy, say the farmers fighting for survival
A few hours before I arrived at Kit Dean’s dairy farm on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, near where North Yorkshire smudges into Cumbria, he took a call from his animal feed supplier. “I had to put them off again,” he says. The bill, running into thousands of pounds, will have to remain unpaid. “They’ve put a stop on the account,” says his wife, Jane, bluntly. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford to buy the feed we need through the winter.”
We are at the table in their handsome, flagstoned kitchen. There are mugs of tea and homemade flapjacks, and a heart-stopping view of the northern hills. The financial outlook, however, is anything but beautiful. The Deans have a milking herd of around 90 cows, and nearly 300 sheep for lambing on their 250-acre farm. Every part of their business is under pressure. At the heart of the challenges they face is what can, by turns, be both farmers’ friend and foe: the Great British weather. For 12 months it has been only a foe. It’s a narrative of rain and gloom and more rain. “You might get a bad summer,” Kit says. “But it wouldn’t coincide with a bad winter and spring. I’ve never seen it as bad as this.”
He lists his problems, starting with silage, the green fodder harvested from fields during the summer and stored as animal feed for the harsh winter months. “The first crop of silage was fine,” he says. “The second crop was very late and half what it should be. Plus I couldn’t graze the cows. They had to be in from July, it was that wet. And obviously you have to feed them properly because if you don’t feed them they don’t produce milk.”
So they had to turn to higher volumes of concentrates than usual, where costs have shot up too, because of grain price rises on the international markets. “Feed has gone up by £50 or £60 a tonne.” With each animal consuming a couple of tonnes of concentrate a year, that’s a major cost. “As a result, the milk price is still below the cost of production because of the cost of that feed.”
Meanwhile, lamb prices have collapsed, and there is the threat of disease in the flock, both Schmallenberg, which leads to birth defects, and the growth-inhibiting parasite liver fluke. Kit is a British farmer to the very soles of his muddy boots: solidly built, determined, proud. At first he asked not to be named in this article; admitted that he felt that in some way he might have failed. But he’s come to realise it’s not the case; that instead he is simply a victim of a brutal set of circumstances far beyond his control. “Consumers don’t realise how tough everything is,” he says.
British farming is in the midst of a very deep crisis. After a drought in its first months, 2012 went on to become England’s wettest year on record, and the second wettest in the UK as a whole. Early summer was a deluge. High summer was sunless, resulting in silage that was as much as 40% lower in all-important sugars. The rains came again for the heart of the growing season. “This crisis compares to both BSE and foot and mouth,” says the farmer and agriculture expert, Donald Curry, who chaired the government inquiry into food and farming after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, and who now sits in the Lords as a crossbench peer. “The weather has affected the entire country and some have had the double whammy of bovine TB and Schmallenberg in sheep.” There are also price pressures on both inputs – feed and fuel – and the amount retailers are prepared to pay. “We know it’s going to affect farmers for this year and next year. For the farming help charities this has become a very serious issue.”
Just before Christmas, responding to dire reports from charities, the Prince of Wales convened an emergency meeting at Clarence House. In 2010 he had founded the Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF), to support people working in agriculture, using money gathered from corporate donors. “One of the reasons the prince wanted to establish the charity was to create an emergency fund,” says Tor Harris, director of the PCF. At that meeting the entire £150,000 emergency fund was earmarked for distribution to farmers in crisis. It was matched by another £150,000 from the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain’s biggest landowners. Donations from corporate partners, including Waitrose, Asda, HSBC and even McDonald’s, brought the emergency fund to around half a million pounds, which is being distributed by four charities.
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI), founded 150 years ago, is one of them. It used to be a standard chronic welfare charity providing help to the elderly and disabled with connections to agriculture. Now a lot of its work involves people in acute distress. “In the past year we’ve seen a dramatic rise in calls to our helpline and those are coming from working farmers,” says Philippa Spackman of RABI. It is, she says, the small family farms and, in particular, the tenant farmers who are being hit hardest. “The narrative is never just one thing. It’s two or three coming together, a perfect storm of need. And the situations can be drastic. Our welfare officer in Cornwall was even handing out sandwiches from her car to people who had nothing to feed themselves. We are talking about farmers being pushed on to the breadline.”
What’s more, with changes to state benefits being introduced in April, they expect to see even more hardship. “These are people who might have a freezer full of beef, but not enough money for washing powder. We’re paying for school uniforms, basics like that.” The issue now is just how long the situation will continue for. Spackman says: “We are concerned that if the number of calls continues to rise at the same rate we simply won’t be able to meet demand.” The PCF acknowledges the problem. “It’s why we’re calling on the public to help get the emergency fund to £1m,” Harris says.
Kit and Jane were one of the farming couples who turned to RABI for help and were grateful for the welfare grant and support, though it’s clear they hated having to ask for it. I ask Kit if he ever thinks of finding something else to do. After all, while he’s worked on farms all his life, he’s not part of a multi-generation farming family. “What else would I do?” he says. “When it’s all you’ve ever known, where else do you go?”
A journey across the landscape of British agriculture can be a dispiriting business right now. On the eastern side of North Yorkshire at Northallerton I meet 67-year-old Edward Dennison, a fourth-generation farmer who is currently passing on the 830 acres he farms to his sons. “Until yesterday we were dairy, sheep and arable,” he says, when we sit down for coffee. “Now we’re just sheep and arable.” The day before he had sold most of his cows. After a century in dairy farming the family is getting out of that side of the business.
“Dairy hasn’t been that clever for 10 or 15 years, but now…” his voice trails off. “What’s crippled us is the input costs, the feed. We got enough silage by volume but it’s not a good enough quality so the cows are not milking.”
We go out for a walk to have a look at the cow sheds, where what remains of the herd is still housed prior to going off to new owners. “I’ve never experienced bad weather like we have had, not in 60 years,” Dennison says. We stop and look out at the fields in front of the farmhouse. “That’s meant to be a field of winter wheat,” he says. “It’s meant to be green.” There is a sludgy expanse of brown in front of us. “There are three fields we haven’t even attempted to drill. I’m sick of looking at my waterlogged fields.” British wheat harvests are down nearly 15% and much of it is of very poor quality. In 2011, 90% of the harvest was of a high enough grade – rich in protein and gluten – to be milled for flour. In 2012 only 10% was. Millers had to import the rest.
Edward says part of the reason the cows are going is because neither of his sons likes that aspect of the business. “Though if it made economic sense for us to stay in dairy it might be different. It’s a global market now and we are a high cost country. Only 6% of dairy production is actually traded on the world markets but that defines the global price.”
Dennison and his family are managing to keep their heads above water. But he knows through his work as a volunteer for the Farm Crisis Network that the mood in the industry is very bleak. He has been there at the end of the phone, offering advice to other farmers who are not managing quite so well. “One farmer I know had to sell his herd simply because he couldn’t afford the feed.” And then he says: “Farming can be very lonely. You’re more often than not working by yourself, battling the weather. You’re constantly trying to play catch-up. To appreciate the loneliness and isolation is very difficult.”
The usual reply to these stories of woe is that farmers should diversify, become entrepreneurs, but that isn’t always the solution either. Over in Cumbria, Caroline Watson has done everything she can and is still failing to make ends meet. She and her husband, John, have the tenancy of Yew Tree farm, a National Trust property once occupied by Beatrix Potter and which even featured in Miss Potter, the film starring Renée Zellweger. Although there are 700 acres, more than 250 of them are the stunning crags and fells of the Lake District National Park.
It is land suited only to livestock, which was why it appealed to the couple when they came here 10 years ago. They have around 90 Galloways and a few hundred head of Herdwick sheep, the stout-legged Lake District breed. “We decided to try to take out all the input costs by swapping to Galloways which can forage for their own food.” Likewise, they chose the Herdwicks even though they don’t breed until they are three years old and generally have only one lamb (rather than breeding at one year and having two lambs as with more standard breeds).
It was, she says, a move into a premium product, with a marketable back story: the landscape, the short supply chain, the Beatrix Potter associations. They set up their own meat business. They offered B&B accommodation, and even clambered on to the street food craze with a high-end burger van to trade at a local beauty spot. But they have been hit by both the weather and the tightening economy. “In 2011 we made 3,000 bales of hay,” she says. “Last year we couldn’t make any hay at all. Plus the quality of the silage was shocking. It started rotting because of the damp.” Like so many others in the industry, they will be having to supplement the feed. “This last year other things have started to hit us. B&B bookings dropped off at the same time as the caterers on the meat side of the business were tightening their belts. They all wanted more for less.”
Talking to these farmers, one theme comes up time and again: a failure by consumers to recognise the importance of the food supply. “There’s a lot of support for farmers out there,” says Edward Dennison. “Shoppers express a lot of sympathy. But then they go and shop on price alone.” Kit Dean agrees. “There were protests when the milk price was cut last year and that opened a few people’s eyes, but it can’t stop there.” Or as Caroline Watson puts it: “We should support British farming, buy quality food. Pass up the second holiday if necessary.”
One clear example they point to is lamb. First there was the poor feed situation, due to the weather, which led to more breeding sheep than usual being barren and therefore fewer animals to sell. Those that were available fattened more slowly because of that poor grazing. And then farmers were hit by the double whammy of a sudden glut of New Zealand lamb imports and a weakening in demand from Europe due to the eurozone crisis, which resulted in over-supply. Over the past few months, farm-gate prices for whole lambs have dropped by 25% and legs of lamb, by 17%. And yet, the National Farmers Union says, the price for lamb in the supermarkets has fallen only by 2%. On average, farmers are losing £29 for every lamb they sell. While some retailers, including Sainsbury’s, have promised to increase the prices they are paying, many of the big retailers are being criticised for not passing on revenue to farmers.
The irony is that, in global terms, this should be a boom time for farming. With the emerging middle classes in India and China fuelling demand for high quality food, and the sustainable intensification of agriculture on the international agenda, landowners and those who know how to farm it should all be well placed. “The medium to long term is very healthy,” says Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture at HSBC, and himself from a farming family. “The short term is much more challenging.” The fear is, however, that with so many people leaving the industry, and fewer in-family farm successions, there won’t be enough farmers left in Britain when we finally reach those sunlit uplands.
But there is hope. At a tea room in Borrowdale, near Keswick, I meet a group of apprentices on the Hill Farming Succession Scheme, which is also funded by the PCF. A group of sturdy Cumbrian men aged between 17 and 24, sit about with mugs of tea, bantering as only a bunch of students who know each other too well can. “The statistics on succession are hard to come by,” says Veronica Waller of the Farmer Network, which runs the two-year course of work placements, training and day release for agricultural college. “But we set up because farmers themselves were talking about how tough it can be to get their sons and daughters to take over. It is a hard physical career and not vastly profitable.”
Very few of the men in the room come from farming families, though many of them worked on farms from a young age during school holidays. “My friends call me stupid for doing it,” says Matthew Aleixo, 21. “But I know I can make a living doing this.” The apprentices talk about the toughness of it. They don’t mind getting up stupidly early even on the darkest winter morning. They don’t mind the long hours. They all agree that school hadn’t worked for them. “Not being good at school is practically a qualification for being on this course,” says Veronica Waller, dryly. Or as another lad called Bobsy puts it: “It’s a gang. Once you’re in you can’t get out.”
These are dark times for British farming; the challenges are real and serious. That perfect storm of atrocious weather, global economic pressures and livestock disease has come together to create some of the harshest working conditions in living memory. And yet a vibrant, thriving agriculture sector is not some optional luxury. It’s not something we can take for granted. The availability of affordable, quality food – the robustness of British food security in the 21st century – depends upon it. Right now we need the enthusiasm of the likes of Matthew, Bobsy and their friends. Fragile as it sounds, they are our hope for the future.
Why the farming crisis means higher food prices
Food price rises are inevitable. At the heart of the problem is the way the British supermarkets work and how they interact with a global food market.
The brutal facts are these: harvests in the UK are down. The 14% shortfall in wheat is only part of the story. The poor quality of what has been harvested has forced manufacturers to look abroad for much more than that shortfall. In January, for example, Hovis dropped its commitment to use 100% British wheat. Likewise, in the same month, McCain’s broke its pledge to use 100% British potatoes, with British potato stocks down nearly 20% year on year. Vining pea yields are down 40%. Some apple varieties are down between 30% and 50%. And so it goes on.
The impact is two-fold. A smaller crop means higher prices. Inevitably there will be an even bigger shortfall from within the UK than usual and so retailers will have to look abroad. The problem for the mass retailers is that, with the rise of new food markets such as China, Brazil and India, there is also much more demand for the food produced internationally.
The British supermarket buyers have been used to dictating prices. They now have fierce global competition and increasingly they will find that prices will be dictated back to them. They will have to pass that cost on to the consumer.
Meanwhile, their desperate attempts to maintain the era of artificially cheap food are likely to push more farmers in the UK out of farming. Which in turn will force supermarkets to source even more from abroad. The role of the mass retailers in the farming crisis and, their failure to act responsibly, cannot be underestimated. It’s a failure which consumers will soon be able to measure in pounds and pence.
Jay Rayner’s book on the challenges of food security in the 21st century, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, will be published in May.
Paul Finnerty questioned by select committee about beefburgers supplied to Tesco which contained 29% horse DNA
The head of the Irish-based beef processing giant at the heart of the horsemeat scandal was questioned by MPs on Tuesday over his chairman’s past connection to fraud and faking paperwork.
The ABP Food Group chief executive Paul Finnerty was summoned before the environment, food and rural affairs select committee to answer questions about how the beefburgers it supplied Tesco could have contained 29% horse DNA.
Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, asked Finnerty why the committee should believe ABP now when his company’s chairman, Larry Goodman, had run a predecessor company that “had been found to have faked records, cheated customs officers, had bogus meat stamps manufacturered and practised institutionalised tax evasion”.
Referring to the report of a 1994 public inquiry in Ireland, Gardiner said that Goodman had employed an “A team” to change official health marks and repack and relabel beef as something it was not.
Were the same people now engaged in these activities at another company named in the current horsemeat scandal, Freeza Foods, Gardiner asked Finnerty.
Freeza Foods is the Northern Ireland cold store where substantial quantities of frozen meat that was 80% horse were discovered last month and quarantined by authorities. Two of its principal executives, Eamon Mackle and Jim Fairbairn, used to work for Goodman companies, and both were identified as key players in a fraud that took place between 1986 and 1987 and attempts to cover it up. Fairbairn was a senior executive with Goodman’s international division and Mackle ran a boning hall under contract at a Goodman meat factory.
The Irish inqury found the two men had been involved in a fiddle to make false claims for EC subsidies and cover up the cheat when customs officials discovered that the beef Anglo-Irish Beef Processors had packed was 15% trimmings and not the high-grade beef it should have been.
Goodman also had a hidden group of companies through which he operated in the 1980s, the MP went on. Did they or a similar secret structure still exist, he asked.
The ABP boss admitted to MPs that there had been a breakdown in the company’s internal controls but told the committee that it was isolated to its Silvercrest plant that supplied Tesco with the beefburgers. Managers had used meat that was bought from suppliers who were not on an approved list. He refused to name the supplier of the meat, but said it had come from Poland. “We do not trade in horsemeat,” he said. ABP was itself the victim of a fraud, Finnerty added, and the managers at the plant had been asked to stand aside while the investigation was conducted. “We have disbanded the division and withdrawn 10m burgers,” he added.
When asked by the Guardian last month about its executives’ connections to ABP, Newry-based Freeza Foods said in a statement, “There is no connection whatsoever between Freeza Meats, set up in 1988, and ABP.”
Finnerty said the other incidents Gardiner referred to were over 25 years old.
The idea of eating insects disgusts us. But meat is growing ever more expensive. Enter the marketing department…
We in western Europe are not going to be crunching down whole bugs any day soon, no matter what their most noisy enthusiasts and advocates say. Some cultural norms around food are simply too rigid, and head-on insects would be regarded as a meal too far.
In Britain the majority of the population can’t even bear the thought of a langoustine, citing issues around beady eyes and spindly claws. The same people are hardly likely to look a dried locust in the face and call it lunch.
But protein from insects will eventually become a part of our diet.
As ever the key driver will be economics; the same economics that lie behind the horsemeat scandal. Meat is becoming increasingly expensive, beef especially so. This isn’t some blip. The future is only for more of the same, as a rising global population puts a premium on cereals and grains, too much of which are fed to livestock.
At the same time grazing land will become scarcer and tensions over water will intensify. By the middle of the century as much as half the planet could be “water insecure”; letting cows and sheep drink what’s left will seem obscene. Many experts believe that, to deal with the environmental impact of livestock, we will have to cut our fresh meat consumption by half.
And yet a hunger for animal protein will remain, which is where the insects come in. The current European Union-funded academic projects to liberate protein from insects – an environmentally friendly source on all measures — will eventually result in a proprietary product that can be used as a substitute for conventional forms of meat in ‘processed’ items such as sausages, burgers and lasagnes.
The key to making this work will be one of the oldest and darkest of arts: marketing. These burgers won’t declare themselves to be made with BugULike™ or Insectelicious™; the contents will list an ingredient called something like NaturesBounty™. And with that shiny marketing gloss consumers will eventually accept it, and fill their shopping trolleys. As with so many things in the end it will all come down to the price being right.
Jay Rayner’s new book on the challenges of global food supply in the 21st century, A Greedy Man In A Hungry World, will be published in May.
Many feel their industry has been tarred with a problem caused by supermarkets’ sourcing practices
Once again, farmers face having to pick up the tab for a crisis not of their making. They say horsemeat in the food chain is a scandal tarnishing their industry – and they’re angry. “Farmers have been furious about what has happened,” said Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union. “They have spent many years working to ensure the British supply chain is fully traceable from farm to pack and have upheld strong principles which are embodied in assurance schemes like Red Tractor. For me, this is fundamental for consumer confidence.”
Farming and food production are often overlooked as the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector, accounting for £18bn in exports in 2011, supporting 4m jobs and adding £90bn to the economy. British farmers like both to boast and to grumble that their standards of animal welfare are the highest in the world – with the costs that go with it.
But farmers do not know whether they will be required to pay for the testing and monitoring regimes that are to be brought in as a result of the scandal.
So when environment secretary, Owen Paterson, told the conference the scandal offered “a fantastic opportunity for British farming”, there were doubts as well as guarded support. Colin Smith from Staffordshire said: “This [scandal] highlights the underhand practices of some in the supply chain – but British produce is very traceable, and we should get support for that from the supermarkets.”
“I’m not sure this is an opportunity,” said Trevor Cligg from Dorset. “It’s been a long time coming – what the supermarkets are really saying is that they have problems with their sourcing, which they need to sort out.”
Tesco’s announcement that it would buy more British meat was greeted sceptically, though few were willing to speak out publicly against the supermarkets that are their biggest customers.
One senior figure in the food industry told the Guardian: “It’s all very well they’re saying they will buy more British products – the question is, at what price? If it’s below the cost of production, then it’s worth less than nothing.”
A farmer from north-east England, who would not be named, said: “I do not like supermarkets. I found Tesco’s attitude patronising – they’re just looking after themselves.”
Farmers in the UK already feel disadvantaged compared with their continental counterparts, because of the government’s embrace of reforms to the common agricultural policy. Paterson, like his predecessors, wants to move away from the old system of subsidies based on food production, which led to the notorious “wine lakes” and “butter mountains” of the 1980s. Instead, he wants a “decoupling” of subsidies from production for them to be tied instead to other services, such as improving the environment. The problem is that the proposed reforms are not accepted by all, leaving UK farmers at the mercy of the market while their competitors are insulated. A British dairy farmer receives on average €262 per hectare from the CAP – in the Netherlands, that is €500 and in Denmark €447.
Before the horsemeat problem, UK farming was already reeling from last year’s disastrous weather, with months of drought followed by one of the wettest summers on record. Profits for beef, dairy, pig and sheep farmers were down between 42% and 52%, according to the NFU, while yields on wheat were the worst since 1998.
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution reports that it spent £250,000 more than usual last year, with two thirds of applications for help coming from working farmers. Normally, most requests come from retired, old, sick or disabled farmers.
For farmers, the horsemeat scandal could yet have the positive effects that Paterson claims, if people permanently change their shopping habits to buy British. But is that likely?
“People in this country forget after six weeks,” said Kevin Bowes, a Norfolk livestock farmer. “Then they will go back to normal and forget that they wanted to buy good British meat.” Meanwhile, farmers could still be bearing the cost.
It’s not shocking that Anheuser-Busch might be watering down beers. The good news is the rich choice of craft alternatives
Allegations are flying around the web, news sites and social media that Anheuser-Busch InBev is watering down Budweiser in the US. Labels stating the strength of Budweiser are inaccurate, the lawsuit states. Anheuser-Busch InBev has denied these accusations, but that does not stop a suit where ex-employees of Anheuser-Busch have come forward to the plaintiff’s attorneys and said that Budweiser is watered down. Personally, I’m not sure anyone can tell what watered down water tastes like but, that aside, I like to deal in facts, not rumor and speculation.
Is Anheuser-Busch watering down Budweiser? I would say the answer is, more than likely, yes. Should that be shocking to you? No, and let me tell you why. I think Anheuser-Busch might add water, to water down Budweiser or any of the other beers named in the lawsuit, at the end of the brewing process to achieve the desired and labelled ABV (alcohol by volume). In brewing, their will always be inconsistencies. Raw ingredients will vary from year to year and field to field no matter how detailed and specific you are in sourcing these ingredients.
Common sense tells me, if I want a consistent 5% ABV beer, then I should brew a beer that is consistently stronger than 5% ABV and add a little water to each batch to achieve the desired and labelled 5% ABV. This is how distilleries achieve their desired ABV – or proof – on a bottle of whiskey or vodka.
Attorney Josh Boxer of San Rafael, California, who represents plaintiff Nina Giampaoli of Sonoma County, is privy to a lot more of the facts than we currently are, but for every winning lawsuit, there is another that is a loss. We have yet to see any proof. Former Anheuser-Busch employees stating that it is corporate practice to water down their beer sounds damning, but lets wait on the facts. How come there was not an attorney saying,
“We have tested cans and bottles of Budweiser, randomly selected from different stores throughout the state of California, and found that, of those cans and bottles tested, a significant percentage of them showed a lower alcohol by volume than as advertised on the product’s label.”
That would put more weight in the plaintiff’s claim. It would make me feel like the lawsuit had teeth.
Should the allegations prove to be true, Anheuser-Busch InBev will lose in court. They will pay monetarily and might be fined by the government but does a company that is buying the remaining portion of Grupo Modelo for $20.1 bn care that they lost a lawsuit for a few million dollars? Anheuser-Busch InBev’s reputation will be tarnished, they will lose a few dollars, stockholders will be upset, but the average beer drinker is still going to buy his or her 6-pack, 12-pack or case of Budweiser at the grocery store on Friday. This same consumer probably cannot tell the difference between 4% ABV Budweiser and 5% ABV Budweiser. I’m not sure even I could.
What I will say to those that continually buy Budweiser, Miller or Coors is that watered-down, flavorless beer is not a new invention. Eighty percent of American beer drinkers drink it as their beer of choice. Put back the case of Budweiser or Bud Light (aka Macro Beer or Big Beer) and buy a craft beer that is made locally. Load Google or Bing or Yahoo in your web browser and search for a local brewery in your town.
On average, everyone in the US lives within 10 miles of a craft brewery so, more than likely, you will find a local brewery within a short drive of your home or place of work. Some of these craft breweries will bottle their beer, others will sell only draft beer but they may sell 64-ounce growlers of fresh, local beer for you to take home. Start out with one of their lighter craft beers, which will be stronger and taste better than macro beer you’re used to. A pale ale, cream ale or kölsch style ale would be a good starting point.
You’ll find a whole new world of beer is out there, and it is called craft beer. We have over 2,000 craft breweries in the US that brew up a wonderful product day in and day out. Buy local, fresh craft beer that is made by breweries who employ local people. It won’t taste like water.
This week, I’ve seen things that have changed me. I have watched animal carcasses being hacked apart and been petrified by meteors hurtling from the sky
As a fan of nightmarish dystopian sci-fi, I’ve been enjoying watching the rolling news channels immensely of late. Well, for a few seconds anyway, until I remember it’s all really happening. Then I stand up and start smashing dustbin lids against the wall, screaming. If you live in London, you’ve probably heard me.
First we had an equine restaging of Soylent Green in which we all, as a nation, looked up from the trough for a moment to spit out a lump of unidentified sinew. It turns out thousands of us may have gobbled off a horse. The shredded stallion scandal shows no signs of abating, and last week went international, as it was revealed the meat in your microwaved lasagne has racked up more air miles than Elton John by the time it hits your tonsils. Seriously, did you see the maps showing the route it takes? France, Luxembourg, Romania … it’s like James Bond, but deader and dumber and minced up and eaten.
Surely they could cut down on transportation costs by simply constructing a pipeline to carry the minced slurry from one nation to the next. And why stop there? Once you’ve laid the pipes you can expand the system – make it like the water supply, but for ground mammal sludge. You pay a small fee to have your house connected to it, and hey presto: a torrent of warm bolognese on tap 24 hours a day. And add some fluoride while you’re about it.
The Romanian connection to the horsemeat scandal initially got the news broadcasters quite excited, because for a moment it looked like we could pin the blame on insensitive horse-murdering foreigners. Suddenly there were news packages littered with shots of Romanian pony-and-trap riders clopping through the streets of Bucharest, the unspoken implication being that the entire nation was a medieval anachronism where horses were in plentiful supply. To be fair to the reporters, the Romanian meat industry didn’t do itself any favours by supplying a heavyset media spokesman who sat in a poky office smoking at his desk, with what looked like a sizeable collection of reindeer skulls littering the floor.
But about 10 minutes later the finger of blame pointed back home, as British police began raiding meat plants all over the country. Let’s face it, chances are none of us has actually eaten a cow since about 1998. It’s been horse, horse, horse. And it won’t stop there. They’ll be turning up evidence of peopleburgers next. I know it and you know it. Might as well get used to the idea: you are a cannibal, and have been for years.
One peculiar consequence of the story is that just about every news bulletin for the past 10 days has featured stock footage of the inside of an abattoir; strings of chewed flesh spewing from mincers while anonymous men in bloodstained overalls hack dementedly at scarlet carcasses. I’ve seen things that have changed me. The other day a guy was sawing a lamb carcass in half; it was mainly hollowed out apart from the kidneys, which were lolling about uselessly like glistening brown eggs, while the anchor monotonously droned on about traces of phenylbutazone. Meanwhile, I was eating lunch without pausing for breath. I’m fairly confident I could now eat sandwiches in a field-hospital tent during a civil war. I couldn’t have said that two weeks ago
It’s strange the broadcasters feel the need to show us this, and show us it repeatedly. We’ve spent years trying to pretend we don’t understand how dead cow is made, and then they go and spoil it all by grabbing a fistful of entrails and wiping our faces with it. Still, at least all this negative coverage of meat makes vegetarians happy. Or at least it would do, if they had the energy to be happy.
Just about the only thing that eclipsed the ongoing horse horror was the petrifying footage of the Russian meteor strike, some of which resembled a celestial game of Angry Birds played by God. It’s not very often you see an image on the news that makes you instinctively want to run for shelter. If those pictures of the blazing fireball searing toward the ground didn’t make your bowels shiver like a ghost, you’re simply not human.
Having spent most of the 1980s having regular nightmares about nuclear war, I was thrilled to discover how accurate the images of imminent destruction I’d pictured in my sleep actually were. Come to think of it, if the meteor had hurtled over the Urals at the height of the cold war, chances are Moscow would have mistaken it for an incoming nuclear attack and launched an immediate counterstrike on western targets, and I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this now. I’d be stabbing a man to death in a fight over the citadel’s last remaining potato.
The images couldn’t have come at a better time, given that a far bigger asteroid was due to scrape past us later that same day, passing close enough that if you climbed on your roof and reached up, you could scratch bits of spacedust off it with your fingernails.
In the end, asteroid DA14 chickened out of destroying us and ran away to hide behind the sun like a pussy. Which was almost a disappointment when you consider just how awesome the footage would’ve been.
Still, so far 2013 has brought us meteor strikes and mass cannibalism (probably). And it’s still
Academy of Medical Royal Colleges puts forward 10-point action plan to help end UK’s status as ‘fat man of Europe’
Britain’s 220,000 doctors are demanding a 20% increase in the cost of sugary drinks, fewer fast food outlets near schools and a ban on unhealthy food in hospitals to prevent the country’s spiralling obesity crisis becoming unresolvable.
The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is calling for action by ministers, the NHS, councils and food firms, as well as changes in parental behaviour, to break the cycle of “generation after generation falling victim to obesity-related illnesses and death”.
In a report spelling out the problem in stark terms, the academy says doctors are “united in seeing the epidemic of obesity as the greatest public health crisis facing the UK. The consequences of obesity include diabetes, heart disease and cancer and people are dying needlessly from avoidable diseases.”
The academy castigates attempts by previous and current governments to counter obesity as “piecemeal and disappointingly ineffective”, and woefully inadequate given the scale of the problem. One in four adults in England is obese, and the figures are predicted to rise to 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children by 2050.
Following a year-long inquiry the academy has drawn up a 10-point action plan – including health professionals routinely asking overweight patients about their lifestyle, and help for new parents with their babies’ feeding habits – to end the UK’s status as “the fat man of Europe”.
The academy’s chairman, Professor Terence Stephenson, said the report did not claim to offer a full solution to obesity, but “it does say we need together to do more, starting right now, before the problem becomes worse and the NHS can no longer cope”. Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £5.1bn a year.
The report puts forward measures it says “society as a whole needs to take to prevent the obesity crisis becoming unresolvable”. Calling for a reversal of widespread unhealthy habits, it adds: “Just as the challenges of persuading society that the deeply embedded habit of smoking was against its better interests, changing how we eat and exercise is now a matter of necessity.”
The academy wants a dramatic increase in anti-obesity efforts. Its 10 recommendations to end what it calls the “obesogenic environment” include backing for:
• An experimental 20% tax on sugary soft drinks for at least a year, like that in operation in parts of the US, to see what effect it has on sales. The potential £1bn annual tax yield could help fund an increase in weight management programmes.
• Local councils to limit the number of fast food outlets allowed to operate near schools, colleges, leisure centres and other places where children gather, to end the “paradox” of schools that try to get pupils to eat healthy lunches having their efforts undermined by council-licensed burger vans outside their gates.
• NHS staff to routinely talk to overweight patients about their eating and exercise habits at every appointment and offer them help, under a policy of “making every contact count”.
• The NHS to spend at least £300m over the next three years to tackle the serious shortage in weight management programmes so many more patients with weight problems can be referred and helped “in a supportive and sensitive manner”.
• An expansion of bariatric surgery for more severe obesity, from the current total of about 8,000 NHS operations a year, to help those most at risk of dying.
• Hospitals to adopt the same nutritional standards for the food they serve patients and staff that already apply in state schools in England, and an end to fast food outlets and vending machines selling unhealthy products on hospital premises.
• Health visitors to advise new parents how to feed their children properly, to avoid them getting hooked on sweet or fatty foods while still very young.
• All schools to have to serve healthy food in their canteens, including academies and free schools, which the education secretary, Michael Gove, has exempted from the requirement that applies in all other state schools.
The report says it is “perplexing” to find canteens in hospitals, which should be setting an example, selling unhealthy dishes, and “even more astonishing that in many hospital receptions patients pass by high street fast food franchises or vending machines selling confectionery, drinks and crisps”.
It is scathing of Gove: “It seems to represent the most extraordinary own goal on the part of the current government to exclude the wave of academies from the [nutritional] standards.”
Stephenson told the Guardian the 20% tax increase on sugary soft drinks was justified because they represented “useless calories” and were “the ultimate bad food. You’re just consuming neat sugar. Your body didn’t evolve to handle this kind of thing.”
The chef and anti-obesity campaigner Jamie Oliver welcomed the report as “the clearest warning sign yet that the medical profession is deeply concerned about obesity. We need action now to educate children and families on how to choose the right food to give them the best life chances.”
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents produce manufacturers, branded the report a “damp squib” that added “little to an important debate”. It said the report failed to recognise the role of alcohol in adding calories to adult diets, and said little about physical activity and “health in the workplace”.
The federation’s spokesperson Terry Jones said: “The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has presented as its recommendations a collection of unbalanced ideas apparently heavily influenced by single-issue pressure groups.”
The Department of Health said it was studying the findings. “The threat posed by obesity in both adults and children represents one of today’s most important public health challenges,” said a spokesman. “This wide-ranging report recognises, as did our own recent call to action on obesity, that there is no single answer to the obesity problem.
“It is up to everyone – government, industry, health professionals and voluntary groups, as well as individuals themselves – to work jointly to promote healthy eating and healthy lifestyles.” .
The British Retail Consortium said it was wrong to “demonise” its members, which include Burger King, McDonalds and KFC. Its spokesperson Richard Dodd said such chains offered a range of items to customers and had reformulated products to reduce fat, sugar and salt content.
“It’s wrong to demonise any particular type of food or food outlet. What our members are hugely engaged in is encouraging healthy balanced diets and giving customers the choices and information they need,” he said. I
t was also down to parents to help children”build a healthy and responsible attitude to eating a balanced diet overall”.
Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: “We share the recognition that obesity is a major public health priority but reject the idea that a tax on soft drinks, which contribute just 2% of the total calories in the average diet, is going to address a problem which is about overall diet and levels of activity.”
“Over the last 10 years, the consumption of soft drinks containing added sugar has fallen by 9%, while the incidence of obesity has been increasing. And 61% of soft drinks now contain no added sugar. Soft drinks companies are also committing to further, voluntary action as part of the government’s calorie reduction pledge.”
This is a crisis not only for environment secretary, Owen Paterson, but for the whole Conservative party
The collapse of a belief system paralyses and terrifies in equal measure. Certainties are exploded. A reliable compass for action suddenly becomes inoperable. Everything you once thought solid vaporises.
Owen Paterson, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, is living through such a nightmare and is utterly lost. All his once confident beliefs are being shredded. As the horsemeat saga unfolds, it becomes more obvious by the day that those Thatcherite verities – that the market is unalloyed magic, that business must always be unshackled from “wealth-destroying” regulation, that the state must be shrunk, that the EU is a needless collectivist project from which Britain must urgently declare independence – are wrong.
Indeed, to save his career and his party’s sinking reputation, he has to reverse his position on every one. The only question is whether he is sufficiently adroit to make the change.
Paterson is one of the Tories who joyfully shared the scorched earth months of the summer of 2010 when war was declared on quangos and the bloated, as they saw it, “Brownian” state. The Food Standards Agency was a natural candidate for dismemberment. Of course an integrated agency inspecting, advising and enforcing food safety and hygiene should be broken up. As an effective regulator, it was disliked by “wealth-generating” supermarkets and food companies. Its 1,700 inspectors were agents of the state terrifying honest-to-God entrepreneurs with unannounced spot checks and enforced “gold-plated” food labelling. Regulation should be “light touch”.
No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA’s inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.
Paterson, beneath the ideological bluster, is as innocent about business as Bambi. Even the most callow observer could predict that with the wholesale slaughter of horses across the continent as recession hit the racing industry – horsemeat production jumped by 52% in 2012 – some was bound to enter the pan-European network of abattoirs, just-in-time buying, industrial refrigeration units, food brokers and giant supermarkets that deliver British and European consumers their food.
Meanwhile, the budgets of some local government food sampling units have been slashed by 70%. A Tesco beef burger containing 29% horsemeat was an accident waiting to happen. Of course it was the Food Safety Authority of Ireland rather than the FSA that blew the whistle. Businesses owned by footloose “tourist” shareholders whose sole purpose is profit maximisation in transactional markets have an embedded propensity to degrade. Consumers and suppliers alike become no more than anonymised numbers to be exploited to hit the next quarter’s profit target.
The large supermarkets have said little or nothing, which Number 10 deplores. There is nothing they can say. They have lobbied for the world in which we now live. An alternative world – in which consumers were genuinely served and where it is understood that suppliers need adequate profit margins in the supermarkets’ interests as much as the suppliers’ own – has to be created by stakeholders, including by government. There is a codependency between state, society, business and business supply chains, anathema to Paterson with his undeviating obeisance to the virtues of a “private sector” free from such “burdens”.
What the Paterson worldview has never understood is that effective regulation is a source of competitive advantage. If Britain had a tough Food Standards Agency, it would become a gold standard for food quality, labelling and hygiene. British supermarkets and food companies could become known for their quality at home and abroad, rather as “over-regulated” German car companies are, rather than first suspects when something dodgy is going on. Capitalism does not organise itself to deliver best outcomes, whatever rightwing American thinktanks might claim. There has to be careful thought, law and regulation about the obligations that accompany incorporation and ownership, how supply chains are organised and how companies are managed and financed. Otherwise disaster awaits.
And there are other bitter implications for Paterson. Geography means that Britain is inevitably part of the European food supply chain. Our efforts at better regulation – and of catching wrongdoers – have to be matched by others for everyone’s sake, exactly what the EU was set up to do and is now doing. The hypocrisy of passionate Eurosceptic Owen Paterson flying to the Hague urgently to meet Europol, saying afterwards: “It’s increasingly clear the case reaches right across Europe. Europol is the right organisation to co-ordinate efforts to uncover all wrongdoing and bring criminals to justice” and urging all European governments to share information with it, should not be lost on anyone. Europol holds powers from which Eurosceptic Tories, led by Paterson, urgently want an opt-out, but not in the middle of a first-order food safety and hygiene crisis.
That everything Paterson believes in is so wrong is not just a crisis for him – it is a crisis for his party and for Britain’s centre-right media whose prejudices makes thinking straight in the Tory party impossible. A great country cannot be governed by politicians whose instincts and policies are at such odds with reality, so betraying the people, economy and society they govern. The horsemeat crisis is not confined to our food chain. It reveals the existential crisis in contemporary Conservatism. British democracy needs a functioning, fit for purpose party of the centre-right.
Instead, it has Owen Paterson and today’s Tories.
US organisation tracks increasing reports of watered milk, diluted olive oil and other dangerous substitutes in the food chain
Some fine wines are complimented for their grassy aroma, but if your cup of tea has that earthy, sweet scent it might be because the tea manufacturer put lawn cuttings in it.
The practice is known as food fraud, and it is used as a cost-cutting measure by food manufacturers. US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), an independent science non-profit, announced Wednesday that its updated database showed incidences of food fraud increasing dramatically in 2011 and 2012.
This means the instances of food manufacturers doing things such as adding lawn grass and fern leaves to tea is much greater than originally thought.
The database’s creator and lead analyst, Dr Jeffrey Moore explained that the database was crafted to help food manufacturers, regulators and others improve the safety of the food supply.
“While food fraud has been around for centuries, with a handful of notorious cases well documented, we suspect that what we know about the topic is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Moore.
The database is made up of 1,300 scholarly and news reports of food fraud spanning the 30-year period between 1980 and 2010. But the updated database records 800 new examples of food fraud published in 2011 and 2012.
USP’s findings show that milk, olive oil and spices continue to have a high vulnerability to food fraud, with dilution the most common cause of problems.
Indian authorities discovered in a 2012 study that most samples of the country’s milk were diluted or contained unappetizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide, detergent and urea – a compound that is naturally found in urine and can be synthetically produced. Some South American milk manufactures replaced milk fat with vegetable oil, another product susceptible to food fraud.
Olive oil is most often diluted with lower quality versions of the product, but reports also show instances of waste oil being used as cooking oil in China.
The new reports reveal that seafood, lemon juice and tea are also especially vulnerable to food fraud.
A 2009 study showed that sushi restaurants frequently misrepresented what sort of fish they were selling. The USP is particularly concerned with the sale of escolar fish, which is banned in multiple countries because it can cause a special form of food poisoning. Fish sellers will sometimes sell escolar as white tuna or butterfish.
“Seafood is an example where food safety controls are species-specific, making replacement of one fish with another especially troublesome,” Moore said.
Some of the reports contain documents dating back to the 19th century that show how food sellers would dilute gin with water to increase its weight and add cayenne, sugar and cinnamon to gin for taste.
Charts from foreign regulatory bodies are also included in the data, including a chart developed by India’s ministry of agriculture that lists common adulterants in food that can cause harm to people’s health. Tea leaves can be contaminated with artificially colored saw dust or foreign tea leaves. Sand, stones and “filth” could be used to bulk up food grains.
Food fraud has caused significant public outcry in recent history. Last week, reports surfaced that some beef burgers sold in British supermarket chains contained horse and pig DNA. One sample of Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers showed that horsemeat accounted for 29% relative to the burger’s beef content.
China experienced one of the worst food safety issues of this century in 2008 when six infants died and 300,000 babies became ill from contaminated milk. Melamine was found in milk powder, and it is thought it was added deliberately to help the milk powder pass nutrition tests.
USP sets standards for medicine, food and dietary supplements and has presented their data to the FTC. The USP first unveiled their database in the Journal of Food Science in April 2012. The findings showed that milk, vegetable oils and spices had the highest frequency of documented cases of food fraud.