Yet another food industry scandal has erupted.
Recent reports have revealed that two thirds of chicken meat in the UK is contaminated with a bacteria called campylobacter, which is responsible for over 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year and an estimated 100 deaths. Yet again we are forced to confront the perils of our intensive food production systems which place the drive to maximize profit above all other concerns.
The horsemeat scandal which hit the headlines last year made us think twice about the trust we place in large-scale food corporations when we consume their products. Irresponsibility is endemic to the food industry, which cuts corners to generate profit at the expense of proper hygiene regulation, animal welfare and human health. We evidently need to reconsider the impact of the low costs that we are paying for meat products.
What is wrong with this food production system?
Despite concerted efforts on the behalf of the Food Standards Agency to enforce stricter hygiene regulations on the food industry, the problem of contaminated meat is getting steadily worse. The meat industries are consistently failing to comply with food regulations, putting our health at great risk. Part of the problem is the demand from supermarkets for ever lower prices, which is forcing the suppliers to cut corners in their efforts to generate profit.
This fast-paced food production system is locked into the drive for maximum efficiency. Pausing operations to clean and repair machinery means loss of profit, and with such tight profit margins to play around with, hygiene takes a back seat. The focus is on quantity and meeting demand, not on quality. Another issue, exemplified by this latest scandal, is that the vast majority of meat production in the UK is dominated by only a few businesses. Several supermarkets and food chains also monopolize the retail market. With this much power concentrated in the hands of so few, there is little holding them to account. Even the FSA, which recently declared that it would “name and shame” those supermarkets and businesses stocking chicken with high levels of campylobacter by publicly releasing statistics, has been forced to back down by the producers and retailers involved. This is a systemic problem, in which traceability and accountability are becoming impossible.
In the industrialization of food systems, we have become disconnected from the sources of our food. Placing our health in the hands of low-wage workers on factory floors who have little incentive to care about where the food they are handling will end up. Although the labels and packaging may coerce you into believing that what you are eating is safe, the facts and figures show otherwise.
What is the solution?
Slow Food UK believes that the intensive method of food production which has become the norm today is damaging our health, our environment and our communities, and casts animal welfare by the wayside. We consume vast quantities of meat in the UK at low cost, with little regard for where it has come from or how it has been produced. This is why we promote the values of good, clean and fair food for all.
We need to reconsider the value of the food we eat, and invest more in eating good quality food that is produced in an environmentally friendly way, paying a fair price which reflects the true cost of production. At Slow Food, we believe that rebuilding localized food systems will lead to greater self-regulation, where producers have a vested interest in producing good quality food. Small-scale producers embedded within their local communities will have direct accountability to their customers, obliged to produce good quality and hygienic food. Reconnecting people to their land and their food is ultimately the way forward.
Some of the small-scale producers within our network grow organic, free-range chickens, allowing them to grow at a natural speed and have a good lifespan. These producers use hygienic yet labor-intensive processing methods such as dry plucking, which means the chicken meat can be hung, letting the natural flavors of the meat develop. These methods of producing meat are inevitably more expensive, but the quality of the meat speaks for itself, and you can be certain that the livestock has been treated with care and respect.
Slow Food UK is helping to raise awareness among the public about how their food is produced, seeing food as something that interlinks with our health, community, culture and environment. Promoting small-scale producers is central to our ethos, and we encourage people to actively strike up connections with their local producers and take an interest in where their food comes from. We need to ask ourselves: what is the true cost of the food that we eat? Can we eat less meat and pay a fairer price? And can we eat meat that has been produced by someone who values their product and our health?
Craig Sams, Chair of Slow Food UK
Clare Marriage, Representative for Slow Food UK
John Cooke, Representative for Slow Food Scotland
Margaret Rees, Representative for Slow Food Cymru
Shane Holland, Representative for Slow Food England
Trine Hughes, Representative for Slow Food England
Ursula Hudson, Representative for Slow Food International