Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Sudan 1

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. A large quantity of the carcinogenic Sudan 1 has got into the food chain, via some contaminated chilli powder, which was used to make a flavouring sauce, which was then used in a large number of manufactured foods.

The list of products being withdrawn from foodstores is still growing. In other words, the extent of the contamination is still emerging.

Here's the twist. On the radio, the word goes out that large supermarkets will be more efficient than small corner shops in removing the suspect foods from the shelves. Therefore we should trust large supermarkets more.

Er, excuse me? Let me guess, where did this advice come from anyway? Doubless when politicians and journalists want inside information about the food chain, there are PR departments in the large supermarket chains who are more than happy to help.

There has always been a tendency for people to trust in size and power. I know people who openly wonder about the honesty of the organic butcher in the village, whether his meat is always what he says it is. But it wouldn't occur to them to question the accuracy of the labels in a major supermarket. It is as if they believe that only handwritten labels lie, while computer-printed labels always tell the truth.

There is certainly a desire to trace and track food sources and additives through the manufacturing process. This is not just relevant for contamination, but also to control foods according to personal requirements of health or faith or values. (Nut allergies, vegan, kosher/halal, and so on.)

So there is a Faustian pact emerging between the food manufacturer, the major supermarket and the consumer. You can eat food that is totally inauthentic and unhealthy, but we can guarantee that all the ingredients are organic/kosher/nutfree. And if they aren't, we'll withdraw the products from the shelves immediately. And if we somehow fail to do this, we'll give you double your money back.

So an occasional food contamination scare helps to remind all of us who's really in charge of the nation's food. Life Support System, huh?

(In a previous post, John asked: When is an in-store bakery like a life-support machine? In my reply, I said that we may easily be persuaded to think of the supermarket as a life-support system as well. This is a dangerous belief - because if we stop supporting the small shopkeeper, the belief may become true.)

Jon Borresen makes two important points.
  • Firstly the level of integration in our processed food network. A single source of chilli powder, sold to a single company to make a single product ends up contaminating over 350 supermarket products in every supermarket in Britain.
  • Secondly, do you know what you are eating when you buy a ready meal? ... [Supermarket meals are] packed with things you would never add yourself if you were cooking dinner at home. Every supermarket meal is also stuffed with sugar salt and saturated fat.

Update February 23rd

Taste the Difference - a good article in today's Guardian by Joanna Blythman, author of Shopped - the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets.
"The current Sudan 1 episode ... cannot help but shake consumer's trust in supermarkets."

Well that's the rational response - but look at the clever tactics on the radio yesterday, which might well have the opposite effect.

"Supermarkets have fostered the notion that we have no time to cook. ... This is because supermarkets make far bigger profits from selling us value-added processed foods than they do from straightforward raw ingredients."

Agreed. This looks like John's life support system again. (Presumably the term "value-added" is sarcastic.)

"Unable or unwilling to give us the true variety that comes from using a large number of suppliers and manufacturers with geographically distinctive, often seasonal foods, produced with specialist expertise, supermarkets present us instead with a phoney choice of merchandised factory food in all its chameleon-like forms."