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Supermarket food home truths

by Camelia Browne
Book Reviews

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Not on the Label
What really goes into the food on your plate
by Felicity Lawrence
Penguin Books

My first impression when I saw the title and cover of this book was that I would be better off not to read it as, with various allergies and a chronic digestive illness, my food choices are already limited.

Added to economic and time restrictions, looking into the cupboard and wistfully hoping for something interesting to materialize in food form is a weekly occurrence.

Great read
However, after skipping the first chapter, which I may read some other time (it’s about chickens, and I have had chickens for pets), it was not long before I found myself gobbling up the paragraphs and subsequently proclaiming it a rip-roaring read. Well, if rip-roaring is the wrong phrase for a book like this, then let’s just say paragraph after paragraph of ‘O My God’ information.

Insider Info
Not on the Label has bucket loads of insider stuff about what happens to your food on the way to the table, what the real cost of cheap supermarket food is, and why some of those ubiquitous ingredients (starch, sugar, you know the list) are there in the first place, creating a concoction which is thin on food value, but for many bodies, adult and young, is all that sustains them year after year.

Local shopping
As, in our house, we already avoid foods with long lists of additives and modified this and that, I could read much of this book without having to go on a hunger strike. What it did do, by the end of it, is have me write a list of all the places I could shop that weren’t the supermarket, and that supported local trade.

On location research
Felicity Lawrence is a journalist who has gone on location to the source of much of the food we see on the supermarket shelves and conducted extensive research and interviews with people along the supermarket food chain from farm workers through to truckies and store managers.

Much of her recent research into the food and farming industry in England was carried out in her role as consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian.

I found myself grateful to her for going to packing sheds, hanging out with immigrant workers and going direct to Africa to get the lowdown, and then writing a very readable book jam packed with interesting information.

What’s in store
Although focused on the English experience, much of it is currently relevant here in NZ, and the rest of it tells us what we’re in for as the hungry tentacles of the new global free trade economy sucker deeper in to all four corners.

For instance,  England’s orchards are being grubbed up because it’s become impossible for orchardists to survive on what the supermarkets will pay them, with apples increasingly being imported, even at the height of the British apple season.

Producers poorly paid
Lawrence writes that in less than half a century, the food chain has been turned upside down, with the money made shifting dramatically from the millions of producers at the bottom of the chain to a few corporations at the top.

Controlled by a few
Supermarket chains have rushed to expand into other countries and such is their power, she says, they even control the brand manufacturers.

Experts predict that within a decade, a handful of manufacturers will operate globally with 20-25 global A-brands (selling you imitation food which is all plumped up and filled out with the same few ingredients before being remixed, reshaped and recoloured to give you the illusion of choice).

Retailers will become even more dominant,  controlling the total food process from ingredients through to production.

Corn, sugar, soya
“Why all this effort to make use of corn, sugar, and soya and other oils, and why are manufacturers so keen to replace fresh fruit and vegetables or meat with these ingredients?” she asks.

Think crop subsidization and shelf life.

Needless to say the corporations represent powerful political lobbies. When the World Health Organisation proposed that no more than ten per cent of calories should be made up of sugars the American Sugar Association lobbied the Bush administration for changes. A scandal?  Not on the Label  is loaded with them. 

Affordable food problem
The problem about cheap food is that the poorest fifth of the population already spends about a third of its income on food, says Lawrence.

But paying more for the raw materials of a good diet does not necessarily mean the food you eat at the end of the chain needs to be expensive, she says. 

I agree to a certain extent, but the problem I think lies with the fact that modern lives don’t allow the time needed to cook an interesting and varied diet from scratch, and in practice to do so means that cooking needs to be a primary vocation, much as it was for women a few generations back.

Attempts to rise to the task (and all the other social expectations that come with family and school life) can see us rushing from one job to the next and inevitably sacrificing the enjoyment of life which is so fundamental to health.

If you do not make your own jam, bread, crackers, sauces, etc; and want to buy quality cooking oils, soy sauce and sandwich fillers, for instance, it simply does cost more.  You can stick to the one or two cheap varieties which haven’t yet been adulterated where they exist but this requires commitment to a limited and potentially boring diet.

I did feel that this book could have given more space to the difficulty people on low incomes, who may also be time poor, have in choosing healthy foods, even when they have the education to do so. Perhaps there isn't much to say about it though. People on low incomes have limited options and that's the long and short of it.

Political option
Lawrence does say that the answer is not that the food needs to be cheaper but that political action is necessary to make sure low income earners can afford it.  It’s the perennial problem.

For those that can choose, this book certainly provides the eye-openers that will motivate change.

Slow Food
Solutions given by Lawrence are the increasingly popular slow food movement, and changing shopping patterns to follow three main principles — local, seasonal and direct.

As with all these food issues, it seems, organic is of course the ultimate solution, given that, as she says, many in the industry are already concerned with a raft of other things, such as the environment and supporting local communities.

For those wanting to know more about the food they eat, and for those already in the know, get this book.

But wait, there's more... 
It’s divided into chapters covering various food items which illustrate the various problems: Prepackaged salad — washed in strong chlorine and dependent on casual labour — the whole casual labour set up is a book in itself; Beans — food miles — some great little stories here about the craziness of it all; Bread — find out why the stuff on sale nowadays is so far removed from a home cooked loaf made from organic flour. Apples and bananas: The standardized apple and the loss-leading banana; Coffee and prawns:  The fair trade (or lack of it) story and the downside of intensive fish farming; The ready meal — everything but the food.

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic