Sunday, 24 February 2013

Horsing around with food labels

And the specials today are...
(credit: mpmedia)
If you listen to the news in the UK, you can't have helped hearing about the "horse burger" scandal. The story is that horse meat was found in frozen beef burgers on sale at a major UK supermarket. There has been a major reaction from the press, but I think the details bear a closer look.

In many parts of Europe, particularly in Italy and the baltics, horse meat is a common food and many locals wouldn't think twice about eating it. As an example, the photo next to this article is of the "daily specials" menu from a restaurant in Verona, Italy. Not only is there a horse meat dish, but do you see that dish with donkey sauce? Yep, that's exactly what you think it is. And this restaurant menu is fairly common.

I didn't go inside the restaurant, by the way.

There are all kinds of cultural traditions and history that cause us to eat some kinds of meat but not others. This changes as you go around the world. If you took those supermarket "beef" burgers to (say) Northern Italy or Slovenia, and labelled them correctly as horse burgers, they'd be snapped up by shoppers.

There have been previous cases of horse meat turning up unannounced in UK food, as in this case from 2003 (opens in new window) where it was found in cooked meats.

The more worrying story today, similar to 2003, is that horse meat found its way into a product labelled as something else, and no-one really knows how or why yet. Many food producers are proud that they can trace the ingredients for their products right back to where they came from. Computerisation and automated machinery make this process automatic. But it seems that someone can still put the wrong label on a box, or tamper with the computer system, and others further along the supply chain won't always check. Of course, we don't know that's what happened with the frozen burgers, but that's where I'd put my money.

A recent TV news report showed that the horse meat came from Romania, and was clearly identifiable as horse meat when it left. It was then traded through at least 3 other companies, each in a different country, and somewhere along the way it was put through a mincer and mixed with beef mince. From that point, even a trained eye might have difficulty spotting something amiss. Horse meat is a fraction of the price of beef, so replacing one with the other could be very profitable.

There are checks that can be done with food. There should be a paper trail from a specific animal all the way to the batch of burgers or lasagnes it ended up in. And with horse meat, we can at least do DNA tests to detect its' presence - although if the paper trail has been messed up, you may still not be able to know how a horse ended up in a beef burger, only that it has.

But none of this matters to the average person until something scandalous happens. We might mutter about not really knowing what's in cheap food, but we buy it anyway. We're conditioned to look at the packaging that food comes in, and the price we have to pay at the till. We're not very good at looking at what's in our food or where it comes from. Even when we do, we probably don't know all the labelling tricks - like the fact that a ready meal labelled "made in UK" can contain meat from Romania. We trust brand names and we trust supermarkets, even though they're often faceless corporations. We don't check what they're doing until something goes wrong. Then we realise that we've actually lost any reliable way of checking for ourselves, and have to rely on government authorities to hold an investigation.

Some supermarkets and manufacturers are better than others. As a slightly different example, a bag of salted peanuts I recently bought was labelled "Made in UK - peanuts from Nicaragua". Another supermarket's peanuts just said "Packed in UK". Both meet legal requirements, and are probably exactly the same peanuts from the same supplier.

A relative of mine has escaped all the meat labelling problems. She buys meat from a local farm shop, where the farmer knows where the meat came from - because either his family or a nearby farmer reared the animals themselves. And the price is roughly the same as the supermarkets because she buys in bulk direct from the farmer (she freezes what she can't use straight away).

What we do know - and the thing to take comfort in - is that horse meat is safe to eat, as evidenced by the tens of thousands (or more probably millions) of people who eat it every day in other countries. But if one good thing comes out of this "crisis" (as some branches of the media call it), I hope that food labelling becomes more honest and transparent.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Post-Christmas Fiesta

It's that time of year when the bills from Christmas start arriving, and people tighten their belts to save money. When companies are looking to cut the price of their goods so that you can buy them more cheaply (while they still make a profit), there are a couple of tricks they can use.

One way is to send the manufacturing process to a different country where manufacturing costs are lower (such as legal minimum wage levels). This is how we currently get more stuff for less money. But there was a time when we were happy with less for less money. Perhaps we need to get back to this.

Let me give an example.

Ford Fiesta Mk1
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Introducing the Ford Fiesta (Mark 1), one of the best selliing cars of the 1980s in the UK. Cars and the environment may not always be happy bedfellows, but the Fiesta shows us an alternative route to lower prices that we chose not to continue, despite its success.

The Fiesta was popular because it was affordable. And it was affordable because the base model had everything non-essential stripped out. Fewer parts means less cost, and less time to get the car off the production line and into the shops. It also means less energy used in production, and therefore less waste and pollution both in manufacturing and disposal (at the scrapyard). The list of missing parts might surprise you, but if you think about it, most of them aren't necessary for a basic car that's used to commute to work and very occasional longer trips. And remember, this was a major car maker in the 1980s.

What's inside the box?
  • Stereo - nope. It was possible to buy parts to fit a stereo underneath the dashboard yourself, although this involved drilling holes. There were holes pre-drilled into the panels by the back seats which worked well as speaker grilles, but you had to invent your own way of mounting your own speakers behind them. Then, of course, you would have to drill into the car bodywork to fit a radio aerial. Alternatively, you could skip all that and have a portable battery-powered radio sitting on the passenger seat. Or sing accapella.
  • Windscreen wipers - only at the front, and they were either on or off. There was no intermittent setting, although there was a "one wipe only" function.
  • Windscreen washers - one nozzle on the bonnet, which squirted in two directions at the same time. Operated by a foot pump on the floor, similar to the ones you use to blow up airbeds. Unconventional but simple, and it worked faultlessly.
  • Courtesy light - on or off. If you wanted a light to come on when you opened the doors, you had to work the switch yourself.
  • Mirrors - there was no passenger-side mirror; in the early 1980's this wasn't a legal requirement in the UK. Use of the other mirrors and checking over your shoulder were advised.
  • Lights - the sidelight was inside the headlamp assembly rather than on its own. Again, fewer parts equals less assembly time. And forget halogen headlamps - the bulbs were basic tungsten bulbs. You could fit halogen ones yourself if you wanted to.
  • Rear fog light - not originally fitted, until a change in UK law made it mandatory. The factory then started bolting a lamp unit to the back of the car.
  • Heated rear window - nope. This could be a real pain if you needed to reverse out of your driveway on a cold morning. Remember, there was no rear wiper either. There was an interesting way to demist the rear window - see "air vents" below.
  • Air vents - there were no air vents that blew in your face. There was a flap in the middle of the dashboard that you could lift up, and it would blow air straight down the middle of the car. Teamed up with the heater fan on full speed, it would eventually demist the back window.
  • Reversing lights - nope. You could improvise by switching on the rear fog light, which lit up the road behind you with a red glow.
  • Gearbox - four gears forward, one gear back. One less gear means fewer parts.
  • Windows - manual window winders in the front. The back windows didn't open at all. But if you've ever been in the back of a car when the front windows are open, you'll know that ventilation isn't a problem.
  • Heater - two fan speeds. No aircon.
  • Seats - vinyl faux leather - very cold on wintry mornings! These were common in lower-end cars in the 1980s. Dealers and car accessory shops sold seat covers that you could fit yourself.
  • Clock - nope. It was easy enough to buy a digital clock that stuck onto the dashboard, again, from a car accessory shop.
  • Wheel covers - none. The wheels were painted silver instead.
  • Glovebox - nope. There was a little cubby-hole for passengers to put their stuff, like a glovebox but without a door.
  • Door pockets - nope. There was plenty of storage space on top of the dashboard, but things tended to slide around as soon as the car went round a corner. There were home-grown solutions, which involved sticking boxes and small storage containers of various kinds to the dashboard with sticky foam pads.
  • Parcel shelf - nope. The contents of the boot were there for all to see. You could cover it with a blanket though - but again, you needed to supply the blanket.
  • Carpet - carpet throughout, except in the boot. I guess the designers figured that luggage doesn't really need home comforts. The boot floor was a large piece of hardboard painted black. There was a hole in it so you could lift it up to get at the spare wheel.
A couple of the items were only absent on the most basic model, while almost all were available on the "luxury" Fiesta Ghia model - although its' price tag was beyond the reach of many buyers. With so many missing items that we take for granted these days, you might wonder how Ford managed to sell these cars at all. But they did, and they were very popular because of the trusted name and the low price tag.

The Fiesta supported manufacturing jobs in the UK, Spain and Germany, where the cars were built. The basic nature of the base models also fuelled a vibrant market in car accessories like seat covers and fitting kits for stereos. This in turn supported a large number of small independent motorist shops across the UK and a couple of national chains.

While the Mark 1 Fiesta would certainly look out of date today, the second-hand market in the 1990's was strong, even with the cars then being 10 years old or more. Compare that to today. I recently overheard a friend saying that their 7 year old car was "out of date" because the built-in stereo wasn't MP3 compatible (and couldn't easily be replaced for one that was) and the built-in sat nav was unusable because the manufacturer had stopped producing updates for it (and again, it couldn't be swapped out).

In today's world, even basic cars come with a relatively high level of equipment as standard. Probably as a result, motorist shops have largely disappeared from our high streets. Car manufacturing often doesn't benefit the local economy as much either, as it's increasingly being done in far-flung countries to reduce cost (although, notably, Ford still have factories in Spain and Germany that build the current Fiesta). And some budget car brands apparently make up for their low car prices by increasing the price of servicing parts (the original Fiesta actually won a UK Design Council award for reducing running costs).

As you might have guessed, my first car was a second-hand Fiesta. I prefer my current fuel-efficient low-emission car with it's creature comforts, although I do begrudge having to pay for the standard "accessories" that I never use (particularly when most of my daily commute is on public transport). The Fiesta is an extreme example of "back to basics". But far better to start basic, and add things as you need them, I think. It's the best way to reduce waste.

A wise person once told me "you can't have everything for nothing". Wise words indeed.

(Note: I haven't commented on Ford's current models or manufacturing processes. This is entirely on purpose; the article isn't intended as a crtitique of Ford, but as a view of manufacturing in general).

Image: adapted from original "Ford Fiesta MK1 front 20071023.jpg", licenced under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 unported licence. Original available at:

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

How to have a happy eco-friendly Christmas

As the festive season approaches, many people are buying presents, planning food, and arranging parties. But is there a way to enjoy the celebrations while minimising the impact on the environment?

I think there is. Here are some suggestions.

Don't overbuy presents
Let's face it, we've all done it. And we've had someone do it to us, maybe without realising. It results in that familiar guilty feeling that someone has splashed out on you, while you only got them something relatively small. And whether you're young or old, some of those extra presents always seem to end up unwanted or unused - which is a real waste! So:

  - Have a present list and pass it to family and friends
  - Agree a spending limit with others. People are often more receptive to this than you would think. And it means people can concentrate on the real value of the present and not just how much it cost or how many items they've bought.
  - When you go out shopping, know what you're buying and for who. Ask for present ideas if you're unsure.
  - Try giving gifts that are a bit more personal and don't involve buying new stuff. For example, offering an evening babysitting, or offering to cook a meal. You can write the details on paper and present them in an envelope if you want to give something on Christmas day.

Party Planning
Disposable plates and cutlery make for easy clean-up, but they're not so good for the environment. There are more environmentally friendly alternatives to paper and plastic that are made from plant fibres with minimal processing. But the best way is to use tableware that you can wash in a dishwasher and re-use.

Full of food?
It's difficult to estimate how much food and drink your guests will want, and how much they will bring along themselves. If you've got leftovers at the end of the evening, suggest that everyone takes something home with them (and perhaps something different from what they brought).

Or why not prolong the festivities? Before throwing away the remains of the food, find out if you can freeze or refrigerate it and use it up over a few days or more. Search the Internet and you will find information on preserving all sorts of food easily and safely. And I mean all sorts - for example, did you know that you can freeze some types of cheese?

So, in conclusion...
Be good to others, to yourself, and to the environment. But most of all, have a great time. See you in 2013!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Natural Synthetics

I heard recently that scientists in the Antarctic have discovered masses of microscopic plastic fibres underwater. Could this be the biggest environmental polution problem yet?

One of the main causes, apparently, is synthetic fibres from clothes coming loose in the wash, and being rinsed down the drain. The fibres then make their way into the sea, and for some reason (which I'm still unclear about) end up in the Antarctic. Here, they are swallowed by marine life, causing harmful effects. Again, I'm unsure how microscopic particles do this, although I do know that a whole carrier bag can kill if swallowed by, say, a turtle.

So there were a few gaps in the news article that was reporting this story, and I need to do some research of my own to fill the gaps. But what came next in the news story took me by surprise.

An "expert" gave their opinion that the problem would be much better if people stopped wearing cheap synthetic clothes, and bought clothes made from natural fibres, such as cotton and wool. On the face of it, this sounds like great advice. Natural fibres break down in the water, whereas synthetic fibres don't degrade.

I might have believed this a few years ago before I started doing my own research. The trouble is, this advice only looks at the problem from one side. While natural fibres are biodegradable, they also take a lot of energy to grow and process. The research I've seen shows that the energy needed for this is far more than the energy needed to produce synthetic fibres. And when you consider that most of the energy used to grow natural fibres comes from fossil fuels, the overall environmental impact of natural fabrics can be much worse.

There are some people who point out that synthetic fabrics cannot be made without oil. But they forget that modern intensive cotton farming also needs oil - not just for the farm machinery, but as ingredients in pesticides, herbicides and other agrochemicals.

So the fish might not be swallowing plastic shards, but the pesticide run-off from the cotton field that washes into the rivers might get them instead. Basically, you can't win either way. But synthetic fibres seem to have the edge, as they need less energy overall to make, and tend to last longer.

What we really need is a new fabric that is energy efficient to produce and lasts a long time, but breaks down when disposed of. I think this is technically difficult, and probably won't be developed while mass consumers are focused on price versus designer brands. However, some moves are being made, and bamboo fibres are looking promising.

Bamboo is quick and easy to grow, and can be spun into a stretchy, breathable, cotton-like fabric. I have a few pairs of bamboo socks, and they're very comfortable. What's more, they're about the same price as ordinary socks. Unfortunately, they're still not as biodegradable as cotton.

Other developments may take longer. I guess what it boils down to is that no-one wants to develop a product that doesn't make a profit. But sometimes there is no monetary profit in looking after the enivronment. This, I think, is the greatest environmental dilemma of all.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Site Announcement - Sep 2012

After over 6 months of posting weekly articles, I've decided to slow down a bit. Posting weekly seems to be too frequent for some folks, and I have to admit, it also takes up a lot of my time.

There will still be new articles appearing here, but less frequently than at present. I expect it will be every month or so, but if you have any strong views, leave me a comment at the end of this article.

I'm also opening an invitation for Guest Bloggers - if this could be you, then just drop me a line explaining who you are and what type of things you'd like to write about. Both new articles and re-publishing of old articles (perhaps from your own blog) are welcome.

Incidentally, I'm always open to suggestions for new articles that fit the general theme of ethical consumerism and the environment.

My longer-term plan is to re-organise the site into a collection of useful articles that people can refer to at any time, and according to topic; i.e. not just in date order. This will take some time as I need to tinker with Blogger settings and templates, and want to test it properly before unleashing it on the readership.

Rest assured, I'm not going anywhere, and the site will continue to be updated.

Thanks for being part of the readership, and don't forget that you can subscribe to be notified of new articles as they appear. You can do this by entering your email address in the box on the right-hand side of the screen (this doesn't work with mobile browsers - sorry!), or by using the RSS or Atom feeds in your web browser.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Legs or breasts?

As someone who doesn't eat much meat (although I'm not a vegetarian), I'm intrigued by some of the issues posed by the farming and meat industries. Things like: if most chicken products are made with chicken breast, what happens to the rest of the meat?

The answer came to me on a recent television programme about cheap food and animal welfare. Some of the chicken thighs and legs make it onto our dinner tables, or in the summer months, onto our barbecues. Some of the other meat from the chicken goes into chicken mince and chicken burgers. But most of it doesn't.

Meanwhile, over in the Far East, cheaper cuts of meat are standard fare in some countries. For example, when I was in Japan a few years ago, I noticed that restaurants had chicken gizzards, cock's combs and chicken skin on the menu. One restaurant had chicken escalopes, but they were made from chicken skin with a thin layer of meat attached. There were no chicken breast products. If you consider that Japan is one of the more wealthy Far Eastern countries, you can see that their choice of chicken meat is a matter of tradition rather than price.

I should tell you that it's not the same in every country; for example, I've had fantastic street food in Malaysia that was made with chicken breast. Things are certainly different between countries.

But I was surprised to learn that we eat so many chicken breasts in Europe that we can't supply them from our own farms. Guess what happens?

Yes, we take the breast from our chicken, and sometimes the thighs and legs. Then we send the rest of the meat and skin off to the Far East. In exchange, they send us the breast meat from their chickens.

Bits of chicken are travelling back and forth all over the world, right now. There is a global trade in chicken parts.

But cheap chicken breast on the dinner table, or in our sandwiches, comes at a cost. The big problem is that animal welfare standards in some Far East countries are far worse than the minimum legal standard in Europe. Apparently, Thailand have been criticised for this, and they are a major exporter of chicken products to the UK. But you won't find this fact mentioned prominently on the packaging.

It can help to check where your chicken comes from; as I mentioned, meat that comes from somewhere in Europe has come from farms that maintain minimum standards of animal welfare. Although some intensive farms are still pretty poor, they could be a lot worse.

The other thing to check is how the chicken was reared. If you buy a Freedom Food chicken, for example, then the chicken is raised to the RSPCA's minimum standards. It may still be intensively farmed (and less than ideal in my opinion), but it gives a balance between animal welfare and the price tag. But if you can afford it (which isn't always possible, I know) then free range or organic chicken is better.

The only problem is that the "higher welfare" products aren't often available as convenience foods. You'll struggle to find free-range chicken burgers in the supermarket, or even organic chicken breast in most local butchers shops. You might have to buy and cook a whole chicken, but this can end up cheaper in the long run if you split up the cuts of meat and freeze them for later use. Not sure how to do that? Google.

I was brought up next door to a mixed dairy and arable farm that diversified into other livestock. I know that things have changed in the farming industry over the years. Not all of the changes have been for the better, in my opinion, and some farmers have been forced to do what they have to, to feed their own families. But the ultimate power to change this is with the consumer.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Social Trends

One thing that interests me is when new social trends catch on. Now, I'm not talking about Facebook or designer fashion brands here. It's something far more down to earth than that, and it affects how we all behave around other people.

Die-hard environmental campaigners have, for a long time, pushed the message that we should think of the world we are creating for future generations. Subsequently, sales of organic baby food are higher than ever, and car manufacturers now sell family-sized cars with higher efficiency engines.

I think there is still a long way to go with openness and honesty when it comes to food labelling in general, and in making public transport more affordable. But the important thing is that changes are happening because people start to talk about these topics. The press releases and announcements have helped, but what really spurs things on is when influential people take action, and their friends realise it's a good idea and want to copy them. Or, as they used to say, "keeping up with the neighbours".

Trends can work in the other direction too, though. For example, there appear to be many more people who are sceptical about climate change today than there have been for many years. Unfortunately, some of them now disregard and ignore enivronmental issues - which is a shame, as they'd probably be the first to complain if pollution in their neighbourhood reached dangerous levels, or there was a shortage of fuel so they couldn't run their car. Or even, if litter was left on their doorstep.

As a rule, I don't leave litter behind. As well as the environmental issues, I consider it my social responsibility to clear up my own mess. I think most other people are the same, having had a good upbringing and being taught basic moral values.

As an example, a friend of mine was babysitting a friend's 7 year old son for the weekend. He normally lives in the country, miles from the nearest town, so the cinema was a new experience for him. He asked lots of questions, and my friend explained everything: from why the lights go out, to how popcorn is made. At the end of the film, they were both walking out when the boy stopped. "Why do people leave their popcorn and drinks behind at the end?".

My friend was stuck for an answer. She couldn't explain this - especially when the cinema foyer and car park were spotlessly clean.

I remember reading an article written by a cinema worker some time ago. He was equally baffled, especially because the major cinemas always provide a litter bin directly outside the auditorium. It may just be because everyone else is doing it, so it's assumed to be OK - even though the facts say otherwise.

Is littering inside the cinema a trend that has become socially acceptable?