Would you choose to eat tomato paste that contained fly eggs? What about genetically modified pop-corn with a few rodent droppings and hairs in it? How about a cucumber that contains animal genes? Eggs with salmonella? Cheese with listeria? Meat with antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Perhaps you’d rather not, but the chances are you’ve already been eating some of them. It wasn’t that long ago that the only problem we had to contend with when it came to food was simply to find enough of it to sustain ourselves. And for many people all over the globe that remains the only source of anxiety, but here in the developed world, we now have concerns other than with supply. We have very good reasons to be wary of the food we eat.
Nothing that has to do with our food supply, production and regulation makes much sense without an understanding of the market forces that underpin them. The European Union is second in size only to the United States in its market for imported food-stuffs. The projected value for 1999 is close to 150 billion US dollars, which makes it a huge and lucrative market for the participants. More than half of this total is made up of consumer-ready products that are produced ultimately by large multi-national corporations, and it’s a growing trend. The economic power of these corporations is staggering: out of the 100 biggest economies on the planet only 49 are sovereign states – 51 are multinationals.
To control the market for food we rely on our administrators and our legislators, and European food regulation is increasingly centralised in Brussels. Their principle means of controlling the products on behalf of the consumers is by labelling. By insisting that manufacturers list their ingredients on their packaging, the theory is that we, the consumers, will have enough information to make an informed choice. We assume that ‘permitted additives’ are safe because our regulators have permitted them and we also assume that the listed ingredients must also be safe for the same reason. But are things really so simple?
A few decades ago labelling was rare and Spartan if it existed at all. There were controls on the integrity of basic food-stuffs, for example the American Food and Drug Administration’s so-called ‘permitted filth levels.’ This is an interesting concept because it’s rooted in the pragmatic idea that nothing is perfect. It’s physically almost impossible to ensure that no insect parts remain in a batch of cocoa beans, so the legislation took this into account and set up levels of contamination that were acceptable. By these standards coffee beans that are less than 10 pc insect infested or damaged are fit for human consumption, pepper with less than 1 pc insect excreta; canned or frozen spinach with less than 50 aphids, thrips or mites per 100 grammes; or bunches of asparagus with less than 10 pc of the spears infested with beetle eggs. Unappealing as all this sounds, at least these are lists of organic contaminants, not poisons. Like a maggot in an apple it’s unpleasant, but hardly life-threatening. The truth is that human beings have survived for aeons eating foods that are significantly more filthy than those described above. While this kind of organic contamination can make sanitised modern man feel distinctly queasy, it pales into insignificance when compared to what you can find in today’s foods.…