The Food We Eat

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.

There has been a noticeable and growing trend in the food industry which has gone hand-in-hand with the centralisation of food regulations and standards, and that is the concentration of food production into large corporations. To put it simply where once you bought your milk and eggs from the farmer down the road who produced them, now you get them in a supermarket to where they were supplied by a large, commercial concern. This trend is growing rapidly, and is largely a result of the legislation that is designed to protect consumers. It’s an old principle: legislation that is designed to either encourage or discourage something will invariably have the opposite effect of that which the legislators intended. The humble egg serves as a good example. The reason that you can no longer buy assorted eggs from a corner shop is because under EU regulations only graded and date-stamped eggs may be sold. The effect of this has been to concentrate production of eggs into batteries, where the large-scale of the operation means that the cost of the expensive grading and stamping machinery can be assimilated. It also means that if you would like to buy an egg from a bird that hasn’t been fed the standardised chicken meal, you can’t. Whereas cattle feed no longer has animal protein as part of its makeup since the BSE scare, chicken meal continues to contain animal protein, mainly fish. However, because meal is not intended for sale to humans, it doesn’t have the same labelling strictures, so there is no need for the manufacturers to specify precisely what proteins are in the feed.

Because the majority of egg and poultry production is now in batteries, the birds live in confined spaces in very high densities. This makes them readily subject to disease which can pass with alarming rapidity through a battery. This is the reason that the birds are filled with antibiotics, and why we, the end consumers, are increasingly ingesting antibiotics and hormones. The structure of the production process has made this an inevitability. So we come back to labelling again. Do the words ‘free range’ help the consumer at all? Not a lot: it is perfectly possible for birds kept in less space than batteries to be sold as ‘free range’ – birds that will have had just as many dosings of antibiotics as battery birds. When the Poultry Processing Directive was introduced in 1971 its idea was a good one: namely to improve hygiene and cleanliness in processing plants. These conditions were expensive to comply with, so much so that the number of processing plants has fallen by over 90 pc. Small scale producers are banned from selling their produce beyond a few miles of their farms. Once again production is concentrated into a few large concerns. Meanwhile salmonella cases in the UK have risen from 7,000 cases a year in 1971 to over 30,000 in 1996, mainly because if there is any cross-contamination in the processing now, it affects massive production runs rather than just a few birds.

The effect of legislation has been almost identical in the meat business. Before the new EU abattoir regulations came into effect in 1993 there were 1,385 registered abattoirs in the UK. Only 438 of them were granted interim licences and many of those have now ceased trading because of massive increased costs. Again, in the interests of consumer protection, these regulations required alterations to the buildings such as new entry and exit roads, offices and showers for the inspecting vet and air locks in the production bay. Few could afford the changes and by 1998 only 280 independent abattoirs remained. Those remaining are now threatened by new legislation which require vets to be present at virtually all stages of the process, and sometimes more than one. In one Derbyshire abattoir, meat inspection charges rose from £14,000 per annum five years ago to £120,000 and would have reached £160,000 in the year 2000 except for the unsurprising fact that it has now closed. ‘So what?’ you may ask. Well, all of this has effects on the consumer. Firstly it goes a long way towards explaining why farmers are paid so little for their cattle while we consumers continue to pay high prices in butchers’ shops and supermarkets, but more importantly, it has health implications.

Because the EU regulations are effectively continuing to encourage large abattoirs at the expense of small local ones, cattle are now being transported further and further afield to the few remaining slaughterhouses. Travel is stressful for cattle, especially if they are travelling with other cattle that they don’t know. Stress dilates the gut, allowing the bacillus escherichia coli to escape into the blood stream. Stress also causes them diarrhoea which infects other cattle. And once again, because any contamination in large scale operations affects large numbers of animals, E. coli and faecal streptococci are increasingly finding their way into the food chain, including the antibiotic resistant strain E. coli 0157. In short, legislation designed to protect our health has resulted in many more outbreaks of food poisoning due to E. coli, streptococcus and salmonella, many strains of which are increasingly antibiotic resistant.

Commercial manipulation of our meats comes next in the food chain. Have you ever wondered why a plate of mince left overnight in the fridge is in a puddle of water the next day? The answer is in the aptly named process ‘meat tumbling’. Meat, like many foods, dehydrates in the atmosphere losing weight as it does so. The old fashioned butcher who hung his meat in a cold room achieved two things; a more tender meat for his customer and the development of benign bacteria that combat bacteria such as E. coli, but at the expense of weight loss. Modern supermarket chains don’t like this weight loss since it’s also a profit loss, which is why you tend to find your meat in a vacuum pack where no evaporation can occur. But the EU also permits tumbling, which is a process that replaces the lost water content by literally tumbling the meat in a drum filled with needles that inject water back into it, thus increasing it’s weight. Harmless enough, but it does mean that you buy water at the same price as the meat.

But things in the meat industry started to go wrong with the advent of mechanically recovered meat, or MRM. This is a means of recovering from by-products meat that would otherwise not have been available for the human food-chain. Originally it was used to extract all usable meat from waste parts such as gristle, sinew and bones, including the spinal column. The meat and marrow were extracted under high pressure and ended up in a liquid form. This, mixed with rusk, is a basic ingredient of the cheaper beefburgers and is regarded as meat by food regulators. Fear that BSE can be spread by ingesting parts of the spinal column have led to that part of the skeleton no longer being processed. It was animal protein recovered in this way that found its way into cattle feed, resulting in the BSE disaster. Yet still today MRM can be found in pre-prepared pies as well as in burgers as the process is used with pork and lamb, as well as beef. It is also a major ingredient in pet food. Even food additives, a small part of our diet, are big business – it has been estimated that the market in additives alone generates over $10 billion a year. Additives include such obvious substances as salt, sugar and pepper as well as less obvious substances such as polysorbate 60, an emulsifyer. What they don’t include are pesticide and herbicide spray residues and animal drugs such as hormones and antibiotics. Before anything may be added to food for commercial sale it has to be safe. But what is ‘safe’? The US congress defined ‘safe’ as ‘a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the use of an additive.’ It also established a category of additives called ‘generally recognised as safe’, which includes many herbs and spices that common-sense would tell us are safe and which therefore needed no testing. A further category, ‘prior-sanctioned’ is for any additive permitted before 1958. An example of this is nitrite which is used to preserve meat. Although it is permitted for use on meat, oddly enough it isn’t allowed to be used on vegetables. So can we take comfort from these carefully controlled categories? I think not. Cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, was once on the approved list but is now banned altogether from use in food since evidence emerged of its carcinogenic effect on animals. Common-sense may not be protection enough. Aspartame, a sweetener with the brand name ‘NutraSweet’ which is present in nearly all diet soft drinks, comes top of the list for complaints registered by the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System set up by the FDA. 95% of all complaints involve aspartame and sulfite preservatives. Other main categories of complaint involve monosodium glutamate (msg), nitrate preservatives and the emulsifyer polysorbate. If you suspect you may be allergic to any of these substances you can always read the label. But will it help? Let’s take a look at monosodium glutamate. MSG is a flavour enhancer, and turns up in a huge array of food products. It is also a neurotransmitter and many people, perhaps one in five, have allergic reactions to it. In its pure form it must be listed with the ingredients, but it can find its way into our food without appearing on the label. EU legislation demands that it be listed only if it is a primary ingredient – thus if it is an ingredient of another substance on the list then it doesn’t need to be listed on the label. It can also turn up under a variety of different names where it is present as a constituent part: hydrolyzed protein; sodium caseinate or calcium caseinate are a few examples. A degree in chemistry might be useful for your next supermarket visit.

How many people who suspect that they may be allergic to peanuts realise that a declared ‘vegetable oil’ may be peanut oil? And what about the common allergy to cow milk protein? Would sufferers know that calcium calcinate is another word for the same thing if it turned up on an ingredients list? What is abundantly clear is that our labelling laws are far from comprehensive and far from useful when it comes to making a choice about what you are prepared to eat.

You will have noticed that I’ve referred on occasion to the US Food and Drugs Administration, and you might reasonably ask what that has to do with us. In a global food market the answer is ‘plenty’. As I write there is another threat of a trade war between the US and Europe over American beef that has been treated with growth hormones. The FDA thinks it’s safe for human consumption and the EU does not. Yet, in the interests of free trade and commerce it will almost certainly find its way onto the European market. Whether it will need to be labelled as such is still to be decided, even though any number of opinion polls show that it is the wish of consumers that it should be. It comes down to whether or not you have the right to know what you are eating.

What the big producers have learnt from labelling regulations is that the less specific they are, the better for the sales of the product. Take irradiated food. Once the EU introduced legislation requiring the labelling of irradiated food, sales of it came to a complete stop. Consumers simply wouldn’t buy it, despite the bleatings of the producers who told us it was a perfectly safe process and could even be good for us. This is a lesson well-learned by the giant food corporations who will increasingly want us to buy genetically modified food in the coming decade. If you think this is future talk, think again; it’s already in your diet. Pick up any packaged loaf of bread and read the ingredients. You will find soya flour listed, which is an ingredient of over 60% of all processed foods. Look in your larder and you’ll find corn flour, corn starch or corn syrup on a list somewhere. There is a high probability that these ingredients come from GM maize, soya or wheat and there is no compulsion for manufacturers to state this on the label. Genetically modified organisms are also used to produce cheeses and canola oil.

A phrase that you will often come across in the debate on GM foods is ‘there is no evidence to suggest that GM foods are hazardous to health.’ This is perfectly true, as is its obverse ‘there is no evidence to suggest that it is not hazardous to health.’ Until long-term trials are run, there is no evidence either way. To assume that therefore it must be safe until proved otherwise seems a dangerous line of reasoning.

Let’s look briefly at what exactly GM foods are. The technology works basically like this: in any organism find the part of the genetic code that is of interest – for example what genes make the Arctic char fish resistant to freezing – take that piece of genetic code and insert it into the code for another organism, for example a cucumber. After many failures you will end up with a frost-resistant cucumber, a boon to growers who can now spend less on heating their glass-houses. I use this as an example because this particular transgenic chimera already exists. Also on the market are strains of wheat and corn that have been genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, which means that they can be sprayed with three times the amount of herbicide without harming them. The fact that this also means that ultimately you and I will ingest more herbicidal residue seems to worry no one. Or the fact that there will be even more chemicals leaching through the land into our water supplies. The technology for transferring genes from one organism to another is not without possible dangers. Let’s be clear; what we are dealing with is different from selective breeding. Genetically modified organisms are created by cross-species genetic transfers, unknown in nature. There is no possible way of knowing what the long-term effects can be, short of waiting to find out, and by that time it will be too late to reverse the process. Unlike, say, radioactive waste which will eventually decompose over thousands of years, GMO’s will be able to reproduce for as long as this planet sustains life, whether or not they turn out to be pathogenic to human life. In short, any genetic pollution will be self-perpetuating.

Can we rely upon our regulatory agencies to protect us? Those with long memories might recall DDT, tryptophan and thalidomide, all of which were originally approved for use, with disastrous results that are with us still. I remarked at the outset that food is big business. Big business means investment and employment, and they are two words that governments listen to, especially within the narrow confines of national interest. But what we’re talking about here is global economics. By 1993 agricultural biotechnology was controlled by only eleven giant corporations, a figure that is now even smaller since recent amalgamations and take-overs. There is a global power struggle taking place. The European Commission is negotiating with the World Trade Organisation to remove trade barriers between the Northern and Southern hemisphere, while at the same time negotiating to protect the ‘patents of life’ for biotechnology through the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreements.

What this means in real terms is that biotechnology companies that patent a transgenic organism will have that patent respected globally. This, of course applies to seeds, and that’s where the future lies. Until now a farmer in Africa growing maize would keep back a portion of his crop as seed for the next season. If Monsanto, the giant biotech company has its way, that won’t be possible in the future. They purchased Delta and Pine – another biotech company – and with it the patent for a new genetic modification process, christened ‘terminator technology’, which ensures that any subsequent generation of seeds will be infertile. To spell it out, this means farmers in the future will have to buy seeds every year from their local seedsman, rather than just once. Leaving the ethics of this aside, the potential for profit is obviously immense – but for this to happen, first you, as a consumer, have to be persuaded that GM foodstuffs are good to eat. The only way for the vast research and development budgets to be recouped is if you and I buy the product. You can see why a propaganda war is in the offing.

According to the United Nations, by 1992 the richest one fifth of the world’s population had amassed over 80% of the planet’s wealth. You may reasonably wonder why we need more competition in the world’s market place. It has been suggested that the growing trend toward globalization and deregulation will shortly result in placing ultimate power into the hands of global corporations rather than into the hands of elected governments – and it’s not out of the question. Unlike a car or a washing machine, food is an essential for life and we have no choice but to buy it. It seems to me that control over what we eat is as basic a right as freedom of speech, movement and association. It’s a right that should not be given up lightly. Bon appetit.