No place to hide

The internet is the most powerful tool for transparency ever invented. There literally is no place to hide for the perpetrators of food scandals, writes Craig Sams.

Oh, dear, another scandal from the meat industry. We’ve barely put away the sickbags from the ‘pink slime’ revelations before we get another nauseating example of how little respect consumers can expect from the purveyors of their animal protein.

Organic cynics might say it’s about time – we haven’t had a good scandal for ages.  Every time something like this comes up there is an upward blip in sales of organic food as consumers rush for the safe haven of uncontaminated, inspected, certified food produced by people with faces who care about the welfare of their animals and the health of their customers.

When Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks revelations hit the front pages the curtain that protected high-level lawbreakers from scrutiny was ripped away. Those revelations were symptomatic of a greater transformation that is taking place.  It’s the new transparency. We are no longer spoon-fed a particular version of reality, massaged by corporate spin doctors and fed out through compliant news organisations.  The truth, horrible as it sometimes may be, can’t be kept under wraps any more. The internet is changing things rapidly. Yes, it’s full of bullcrap and whackos, but it quickly sorts the truth from the rubbish and gives us all a clearer understanding of what’s going on. It’s eroding trust, but if trust is misplaced, then it’s better to mistrust. Common law makes much of assuming innocence until guilt is proven. Nowadays it’s smarter to assume the worst until you can be confident otherwise.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, wants GMOs to be grown in the UK.  He announced at the NFU conference in January that we were all eating them anyway as our meat is from animals that eat GM feed. He didn’t mention GMO oats at the time, I guess he wasn’t counting the horses. When I was a lad, if a government minister presided over a scandal that reflected badly on him and his department he did the honorable thing and popped in to 10 Downing Street to proffer his resignation. Patterson is brazening it out. He is even pushing to get Britain to have more relaxed meat labelling and content standards.

If his department can’t keep horses out of burgers, hot dogs and ready meals how the hell is he going to give consumers who don’t want to eat GMOs any protection? The recent events have shown that unscrupulous processors can drive a coach and, er… equines through the controls that supermarkets and the Food Standards Agency agree are enough to protect our freedom of choice. How on earth are they going to give us a choice about eating GMOs?

The meat industry has a dismal record. When my brother Gregory sold his Vegeburger business in 1988, the new owners moved production to a big meat processor and the first batch went out to Sainsbury’s. The burgers were so convincingly like meat that customers raised the alarm. Somebody had pushed the wrong button in the factory and the Vegeburgers had been accidentally made with beef (or horse, dog, cat, hamster, whatever).  Linda McCartney got so angry when her processor made a similar mistake that she forced them to build a separate, totally meat-free, factory to process her branded ready meals. And it’s not just meat they contaminate. When e.Coli contamination of spinach triggered nationwide recalls in the USA it turned out the e.Coli came from irrigation water. The water was contaminated with cow poo from an intensive beef feedlot at the top of the valley. One of the reasons supermarket buyers rotate every six months or so is because the meat buyer is almost inevitably corrupted by suppliers and the only cure is to keep moving them around. Even in Medieval times, ‘the butcher’s thumb’ referred to the practice of resting his thumb on the scale as he weighed out your pound of flesh. Even when there’s no meat on the bone, they’re still at it. When Rabbi Kahn visited our jam factory to certify it Kosher, he was particularly vexed about human collagen in gelatin. Our factory manager, who once ran a gelatin factory, mentioned how rings and jewelry would appear in the ‘cow bones’ from India that they processed.

Under the harsh glare of the internet, there are fewer and fewer hiding places for wrongdoers.  The truth will out, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.

So what to do? Choose  organic? Go vegetarian? You took the words right out of my mouth.