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: