The spider in the cup

May contain salt and pepper, if she unscrews those caps
May contain salt and pepper, if she unscrews those caps

 Findus, whose horse lasagne is now world famous, has a section on their French website called “Agri Confiance®”, promising “confidence from the pitchfork to the fork!” They explain how Agri Confiance® ensures the total traceability of your food by perfectly identifying all the different stages of production, from the plot of land through to the final transformation. That final transformation of horse into cow must be a trade secret because they don’t mention it.

The whole affair raises the question of whether the food industry can be trusted. Given the number of laws and regulations governing it and the number of scandals that keep on happening anyway, “no” seems the obvious answer. It’s only natural therefore that governments try to impose standards on what we eat and drink, and have traditionally done so. Roman legislation on consumer protection, for example, was just as elaborate as some of today’s laws, but the world’s first comprehensive modern food law was the UK’s 1860 Act “Preventing the Adulteration of Food and Drink.”

If you’ve read TC Boyle’s Water Music, set a few decades earlier, you probably remember “Chichikov’s Choice”, a caviar Ned Rise makes from frog spawn and shoe polish. It sounds far-fetched, but the report of the parliamentary Committee set up to examine the need for the 1860 Act shows that food (in towns at least) wasn’t better in the good old days. The list of additives includes plaster of Paris and copper sulphate in bread, sawdust in chicory, and sulphuric acid in gin. The Committee members were given the chance to try a popular “gunpowder tea” sold in the poor quarters of London. As the report says, “the Committee did not venture to taste it, but they were assured its flavour was very peculiar”. That would be the silkworm dung added to make the tea look stronger.

The parliamentary debates leading up to the Act sound almost identical to today’s discussions for and against government intervention. John Roebuck, member for Sheffield, claimed that if the “Bill were carried into effect it would create such confusion in London that no shopkeeper would pass a quiet life.” According to John Wise, Member for Stafford, the Committee had established that adulteration was practised wherever it was possible, adding that “Nor have the poor the same power to protect themselves … as their richer neighbours; they are necessarily limited to such means of purchase as are afforded by the immediate locality in which they reside…”. Speaking in a parliamentary debate on 12 February, London MP Diane Abbott said “… there are families in communities such as mine who eat an awful lot of cheap, processed food. They deserve absolute assurances about its quality.”

So what has changed? Multinational retailers and food manufacturers now dominate the industry. They put enormous pressure on suppliers to cut costs and nothing is wasted. At the start of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair summed up the meat industry’s approach by saying “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” His 1906 novel The Jungle contains sickening descriptions of the Chicago meatpacking industry and actually helped to get the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act passed that same year.

The food industry opposed that legislation, as it opposes many attempts to impose any form of regulation other than self monitoring. Speaking at an OECD Food Chain Network meeting last October, Professor Tim Lang from the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London said that “In spite of the growing evidence since 2000, the mainstream agenda for the food system remains anchored in reducing government involvement; changing consumer behaviour through ‘nudges’ and information availability and continuing to deliver internal supply chain efficiencies.  Essentially this agenda says the food system is fine.”

Obviously it’s not. That said, legislation can sometimes have unintended negative consequences. Last year, the EU banned “desinewed” meat in low cost meals. This includes MRM (mechanically recovered meat) obtained by blasting bones with high-pressure hoses after cutting away what you and I would probably think of as meat. With pink slime (as it’s also known) unavailable, the industry looked for equally cheap alternatives, often from suppliers or even countries they hadn’t used before.

That brings us to the second major feature of the modern food industry: the global supply chain, or what a recent OECD study describes as “growing fragmentation of production across more economies”. Dozens of different companies and intermediaries may be involved in supplying “meat” to the final processor. The latest scandal shows that nobody is really sure that all their partners can be trusted, with everybody claiming they were duped by somebody else.

Walmart’s disclaimer is charmingly frank about this, warning the customer not even to trust them: “While we strive to obtain accurate product information, we cannot guarantee or ensure the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of any product information.” Their UK subsidiary ASDA tries to be more reassuring: “…because products are regularly improved, the product information, ingredients, nutritional guides and dietary or allergy advice may occasionally change.” (We’ve upgraded your beef burger from a boring old cow to something more classy).

By the way, one of the intermediaries selling meat to the French food processors is Draap, owned by a trust registered in our old friend the British Virgin Islands. According to The Guardian, Draap’s sole director is an anonymous Cyprus-based corporate services company called Guardstand, who also owned a share in a business called Ilex Ventures. US prosecutors allege that “merchant of death” Viktor Bout gave Ilex funds to purchase aircraft to fly arms and ammunition around Africa’s trouble spots in breach of embargos.

A couple of weeks ago, Rod Kramer and Todd Pittinsky wrote on the Insights  blog that “Political and business leaders often bemoan the “fragility” of trust – so hard to earn and so easy to lose, they whine. But that’s exactly the way it should be.” The horse meat scandal proves their point. The violent reaction of many consumers is due to the fact that they have suddenly discovered a disgusting truth. In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare compares this feeling of betrayal to discovering that you’ve drunk from a cup that had a spider in it. If you never find out about the “abhorr’d ingredient”, you won’t be bothered, but if you do…

There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink; depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected), but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

Useful links

OECD work on restoring trust

Man’s worst friend

You’re still not as dangerous as a frickin’ chicken, baby

If you live in the USA, you’re 40 times more likely to end up in hospital due to a Christmas tree decoration than a shark attack, but (rough guess) 40 billion times less likely to end up on the news. Sharks have a bad press, and rightly so judging by some of the stories in Juliet Eilperin’s Demon Fish. For instance, did you know that baby tiger sharks eat each other in the womb? I didn’t, but I was sure that other animals were far more dangerous to human life than the Great White. There were 216 million cases of malaria in 2010 according to the WHO with 537 000 to 907 000 deaths, and mosquitoes also transmit the dengue fever that infects 50 to 100 million people each year and kills 12,500 to 25,000.

The worst killers though are chickens, cows and other livestock. Mapping of poverty and likely zoonoses hotspots, a report for the UK’s Department for International Development, estimates that each year 2.5 billion people fall ill and 2.7 million die from zoonoses, diseases transmitted by animals, with 1.5 million victims killed by gastrointestinal diseases alone, after eating infected meat, eggs or dairy products.

Some of the findings are what you might expect, for example the strong association of poverty, hunger, livestock keeping and zoonoses. Nineteen developing countries account for 75% of the global burden of disease due to zoonoses. Among the surprises (for me anyway) was the high figure for the urban poor depending on livestock: 10% (versus 70% in rural areas), although thinking about it, a lot of this may be poultry and not need much space or investment.

Emerging zoonotic diseases are a big worry. HIV/AIDS is the most dramatic example of a condition that appeared first in animals before crossing the species barrier, and there are fears that more recent diseases such as avian influenza may evolve to become transmittable by humans to other humans. There are more such emerging diseases than you may think. The report reviews 43 new or newly reported events since 2004. Most are viral and originate in wild animals and occur on every continent. But here’s another surprise: there appear to be clusters in the northeast US, Europe, South America and South East Asia.

That may simply reflect better surveillance in these areas. The chances of a new disease being spotted are slim when, as the authors point out, 99.9% of livestock losses in sub-Saharan Africa do not appear in official reports and at least half of these losses are probably due to notifiable diseases. Even so, some countries do have successful disease monitoring and control systems. Botswana is one of the case studies in a forthcoming OECD report  Livestock Diseases: Prevention, Control and Compensation Schemes. The country exports beef to the EU and other high-value markets and has put in place an efficient system for controlling foot and mouth disease (FMD).

The UK report was co-written by researchers from the Hanoi School of Public Health, and Vietnam is another of the case studies. Nearly 50 million birds were culled in Vietnam because of avian influenza over 2003-2010, but the report says the compensation scheme hasn’t changed livestock owners’ behaviour much because it’s too little, too late and too complicated. Or top put it another way “if the appropriate agents do not consider it in their own best interests to adopt practices of animal husbandry for disease prevention, and reporting and reacting to disease outbreaks, no policy framework can be expected to work well.”

And in case you’re wondering what compensation you can expect for a shark attack, the Egyptian government paid $50,000 dollars to a Russian tourist whose hand was bitten off. Appropriately enough, the web site where I read this story has an ad for “5 foods never to eat”.

Useful links

OECD work on agricultural policies and support

Want a better life? Put your mind to it.

Everybody thinks on occasion about how life might be improved.  But working towards that better life means solving a certain number of knotty problems.   What do you think should be tackled first? Complex answers to this simple poll are much appreciated- just put them in the comments section.  Now, put your minds to it!