Friday, 29 September 2017

The Not-So-Shocking Supermarket Chicken Shocker

Were you shocked by the Guardian/ITV expose that allegedly uncovered a catalogue of food standards breaches? Their undercover reporting appeared to reveal unsold chicken that had been returned to the factory was being repackaged and sent out as fresh. They discovered labels changed on crates of chicken that altered the 'killed' date to both extend the shelf life and change the identification of the source of the birds, making traceability meaningless. 

You shouldn't be shocked. 

I doubt that anyone who has ever worked in a target-driven industrial set-up will be quite as shocked. You see, as much as supermarkets with their faux-farm labelled packages, like us to have an image of our food coming from a bucolic, green-and-pleasant land farm, the truth is that the vast majority of supermarket meat - especially chicken - is produced on an industrial scale with industrial values. 

Equally, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were quick to point out that an effective and efficient audit system was in place and reeled off a list of audits that were meant to prove that all is well in our industrial food system. I think they intended it to reassure us but it doesn't does it? What it says is that in spite of the FSA these alleged target-cheating practices still happened and, according to witnesses are endemic.

Not so long ago we saw stomach turning footage of an abattoir worker literally throwing sheep onto a fast moving conveyor belt. Two things were clear from the secretly filming: one cruel practices were taking place unchecked, but also the worker was clearly struggling to keep up with the pace of work that was demanded of him. He sacrificed animal welfare for the sake of keeping up with the production target required.     

Target driven cultures do not encourage workers to produce products enriched by the wholesome values that company bosses say they aspire to. Targets drive people to achieve the targets - often no matter how that is achieved. 

This might be fine where volume is everything, where widgets are made to a standard specification for example and they either are, or aren't right. But this is our food, and food embodies a whole raft of other attendant issues. Things like animal welfare, health and hygiene, and public trust to name a few. 

I would argue, and often do, that factories are no place for food production. 

Next time you meet someone that has worked in a target driven culture ask them what tricks they learnt to cheat the targets. I've worked in one and could tell you a few. Fans of targets might tell you that it is simply that the targets in this case were the wrong ones - if you get the targets right, they say, you will get good, measurable performance that encapsulates the values and regulations you want applied to your food. 

I would argue differently - I am a fan of systems thinking, a completely different approach to work and the way to manage it. For a readable and witty look at targets and how they constantly fail us in the public sector, I'd recommend this blog. 

In the meantime, lets not throw our hands up in horror that workers cheat in order to achieve what they believe the company wants of them. Let's accept that food made in factories is inherently driven by profit: feeding the nation with wholesome food is a secondary (if at all) driver. Food from factories is simply a commodity to be traded. 

If, like me, you do not like this sort of food manufacture, make it your mission to buy food from places where the supply chain is short and people can tell you where the food came from. A good butcher can usually tell you where their meat was killed and where it was farmed. You don't need me to tell you that is not the case in a supermarket. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What Our Local Card Shop Says About Shopping Locally

Congratulations Michelle!

For thirty years Michelle has sold local people greetings cards from her shop Celebrations in Lees village centre near Oldham. It was the anniversary of her launching the shop last week. The shop is successful, by Michelle's standards at any rate - she never wanted to be rich, just make a living. On the day of the shop's anniversary she was surprised how many people wanted to wish her well and say thank you for being a witness to and, in a small way, a participant in the events of their lives for thirty years. 

Michelle's shop is a model of what local shopping means, and perhaps gives us a clue about what things might convince people to spend their money locally with small retailers and producers. 

So what is it that made us want to wish Michelle well and makes us choose to spend our money at Celebrations, rather than choose a greetings card online, or at a supermarket where it might well be cheaper? 

If you spend a moment browsing the aisles of cards you often overhear the conversations that, I think, demonstrate the added value that Michelle gives to her customers. She has empathy in bucket loads: I have heard her sensitively help someone who is clearly at a loss to choose a card for a bereaved friend; I have seen her be giddily excited with someone on the birth of their first grandchild, and I have seen her guide (usually) a man to choose a card for his partner with sensitivity and tact. 

You don't get that in Tesco (other soulless retailers are available for you to avoid). 

The big retailers bang on about value, but value brands usually mean cheap. They are missing the point by a mile but are winning the battle to convince consumers that the only value in their shopping experience is the cost of the products they purchase. 

Perhaps when we think about the next marketing move for small retailers we should think about promoting the real value in shopping locally. The value gained from a relationship with someone that understands the product and understands how the retailer can add value to that product (like Michelle with her empathy or your local food producer/retailer with their knowledge and skill that ensures you get value in your food). 

In the meantime here's to Michelle and her thirty years of greetings cards that have seen us through the ages of our sons when you got badges on the front of cards, through our parents big birthdays, our bereavements and our births. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Do You Really Choose the Food You Buy? - Take Back Control.

There is a growing movement of food revolutionaries fighting to help you take back control of how we choose what we eat. 

You didn't know there was a fight to be had? Read on...

Who decides what food you buy for your family? Surely you do right? It is you that writes your shopping list picks items from the shelves and  place them in the trolley. But lift the lid of the products we choose  and it is much less clear who is choosing what we eat.

I've written before about the hidden contents of processed and packaged food, the sort of foods we trust  other people to prepare for us, particularly the big food manufacturers. Investigative journalist Joanna Blythman's book Swallow This sets out the stark reality of the questionable contents of much processed food.  Even with the protection of our own Food Standards Agency there are many ingredients in our food that have no food value yet are lawfully included solely for the purposes of making food easier to pass through machines, and therefore more profitable; and these processing aids do not need to be listed as ingredients.

Recently though, the worrying prospect of having less stringent food standards foisted on us as the result of post-Brexit trade deals has become a distinct possibility For example the US profit motive encourages  intensive farming systems many of us wouldn't endorse, and allow the use of pesticides that have been banned in Europe for some time.

This article in the Guardian newspaper explains how such a trade deal could have us importing food farmed in ways we disapprove of with chemicals we believe to be harmful. Yet if you eat processed food - tinned meat goods, or ready meals for example- you may well not know that your food comes from those sources.

Those of us with enough money may already be buying ourselves out of such worries by shopping ethically, buying fresh fruit and vegetables, and selecting organic produce. But where you have less cash there is even less choice: Buying food at the cheaper end of the price range means having less choice about where it comes from.

So we don't always have the choice we think.

Rooting and Fruiting, Todmorden,
I recently discovered the Food Sovereignty movement, established by groups of third world farmers forced into near starvation when big business farming organisations made their small-scale farms unviable as businesses. By sharing resources and  knowledge,  and  working from the principle that farming should be primarily about feeding people rather than making money food producers are fighting back to make fresh food accessible and affordable for everyone.

In the UK we have our own Food Sovereignty movement  a sort or reaction to the temporary Food Bank solution that sometimes means people in food poverty are forced to eat poor quality food. Groups of allotment growers, guerrilla gardeners and other community minded food producers are forming a network of sustainable, local food producers whose motive is not solely individual profit.

Take a look at our own  projects in Oldham, or Salford's Incredible Edible and cross the border to Yorkshire to see the innovative Yorkshire mushroom growers at Rooting and Fruiting.  These vibrant growing communities are a world away from the large-scale globalised agri-giant organisations that try to convince us that our attitude to food production should be that it is best carried out at a distance by those that know best. I think we know better than that, don't we.

If you want a manifesto for taking back control of the food you choose here are some suggestions:

  • Buy food from people you can have a conversation with about where it comes from, and who can answer questions knowledgably and with interest
  • Try to shorten your food chains - buy food where there is only one or two steps between the person producer and yourself
  • Buy organic when you can. Organic meat is expensive - that will help us value it more: eat less but eat better.
  • Support your local growing organisations and Food Sovereignty organisations in person preferably - get involved.
  • Grow your own food and waste less - be creative about what you eat, use leftovers

Feel free to add your own suggestions - let's work together and take back control of the food we feed our families. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Need to Knead

Across the globe bakers knead. Wherever wheat doughs are made, kneading happens. Jane Mason, founder of Virtuous Bread is currently working on The Travelling Bread Oven, a film celebrating bread across the globe. She says:

introducing flour to water

'...there are all sorts of stories of turn of the last century bakers in Mexico kneading with their feet, and I think everyone knows the story of the Greek baker who kneads the dough by rolling it around on his burly, sweaty chest.  Are they true?  Who knows.  In every country I have gone to, the bakers - whether home or professional - knead...'

Yet the mystical, almost alchemical aura that kneading seems to have makes it equally enthralling and intimidating for new bread makers; and for some even the idea that bread making requires physical exertion is quite simply off-putting.

According to science though, it doesn't have to be like that. Kneading dough is simply a method of speeding up the biological process of gluten development. Gluten is the term for two protein molecules, glutenin and gliadin, present in wheat flours and some other related cereals. In the presence of water they form bonds to create a stretchy gluten network. It is that network that gives structure to breads by trapping carbon dioxide produced by yeast and allowing them to rise.

Yet many bakers have observed that after a rough mix, and without much additional intervention, wheat flour and water will form a gluten network. The Glutenin and Gliadin molecules form an orderly network on their own given time.

Not pretty but great bread
So if the thought of dough-rolling across a hairy chest makes you shudder, or if you have been in a physical relationship with dough for a while and just want to be less kneady, there are other options.
Some grains other than wheat have very little gluten but bags of flavour. In much of Northern Europe rye breads are a staple and require little manipulation of dough to create rich and flavourful breads.
People with joint problems may find that the squeezing and stretching of dough is not possible: no-knead doughs may be a solution.

 With his book My Bread, writer and baker Jim Lahey reportedly revolutionised New York's home bread making by showing how thick crusty breads of a quality usually associated with the best craft bakers, could be made with less effort than traditional bread making methods. Using wetter doughs and a Dutch Oven pot to simulate bakery oven conditions he showed that virtually no kneading is required. For those still sceptical, food scientist Harold McGee sets out in his book On Food and Cooking how the detailed chemical processes that result in the formation of a gluten network really do not need much help from us other than to introduce flour to water.  

And if all that science sounds too much like school, Suzanne Dunaway's book No Need to Knead uses lovely descriptions of her New York/Italian upbringing to make the point that the there is no place for a dough-wrangler in her kitchen. Each author makes the case that no matter how much we might enjoy wrestling a few kilogrammes of sticky mass into silky submission we don't have to do it. 

Home bakers have the advantage over professionals in that they do not necessarily need to fit their baking into an eight-hour bakery shift. This means that some form of kneading or dough manipulation is more or less essential to create bread in an eight-hour bakery shift. Yet it is still possible to reduce the amount of kneading. BBC Food and Farming Award finalist E5 Bakehouse, for example, stretch and fold dough at intervals rather than carry out a single concerted knead.
Wetter doughs make for holier bread

By learning to work with wetter doughs creative bakers can not only exploit the property of water to reduce the amount of kneading required but also create wonderful holey and wholesome European breads whose doughs almost defy attempts to knead them. A glistening pillow of ciabbata dough waiting to be gently divided into ubiquitous slipper shapes is a lovely sight.  

Yet as I hear myself describing them I can't help but think that I'm approaching this from the wrong direction. I'm not making an art installation, or writing a poem. I want bread making to be at the heart of people's lives in a way that is practical, nourishing and useful. The need to knead, or not, is about helping people find ways to make real bread that fits all kinds of ways of living. If discovering that we don't have to knead teaches us anything it teaches that there are even more ways to help people introduce good real bread into their lives. Knead if you like, but if you always thought breadmaking was not for you because of the need to knead, help is at hand.

Previously appeared in True Loaf, the magazine of the Real Bread Campaign

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Who Says no to Grandkids and Does it Make them Fat?

I'm I've not written on here for a while, but that's not to say I've not been writing. I recently wrote a guest post for Gransnet about childhood obesity for example.

That post got the Grans kicking off! How dare I suggest that they (that's we actually) could be partly at fault by being the purveyor of sweet treats.

Anyway have a look for yourselves and be the judge. Here it is:

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Let's Keep the Awww in Our Meat

Awww. Lambs are cute. Cows have beautiful doleful eyes and seem so gentle when they gaze at you happily chewing; and pigs: such cheerful friendly chaps.

We do an odd mental thing when we think about food don't we? We love fluffy and cuddly
creatures: we give our children softly stuffed versions of them. Yet we we cannot seem to square this with the fact that we eat them.

Each Spring and Autumn there is a national debate in the UK. We have TV programmes - Springwatch and Autumnwatch in which the beauty and magnificence of nature is set out in detail before us with great skill and ingenuity by the programme makers. We love the drama of a nestbox-cam; and we ooh and ahh at the high drama of the Autumn Red Deer rut. 

The odd thing is that though we are sad when a downy chick is predated, or thrown from the nest by its mother we are not unduly fazed by it. After all it's nature isn't it? Yet when it comes to meat we become squeamish.

This is a problem.

Maybe it's something to do with us being up close and personal with death. In the same way, we don't want to hear too much detail of what our armed forces get up to in order to protect us; we are just happy that they do unpleasant things and we trust them to do it in an honourable and decent way. 

Yet now and again there are revelations about both overly brutal battlefield antics, and horror stories about harsh abattoir activity. 

Yet, do you know what constitutes a well-run abattoir, or do you know who sells what meat from which abattoir or what their performance standards are on animal welfare?

For most of us the answer is no. 

We turn our faces away from animal slaughter; the work of slaughtermen (and women) is seen as unpleasant and brutish when that is precisely what it should not be, and in the best run abattoirs it is not.

Good meat requires that animals are not overly stressed at slaughter. If you scoff at the idea that animals might not be stressed immediately before being stunned and bled to death, think again.

In well run abattoirs things that unduly stress animals are designed out. Animal behaviourists working with people like the Humane Slaughter Association eliminate animal handling systems that cause fear and panic. Well run abattoirs are relatively quiet efficient places staffed by people who are accustomed to working with animals.

There is a financial imperative in doing this well: animals whose bodies are pumped full of adrenaline do not produce good quality meat, though you can buy cheap, poor quality meat that comes from places that are less scrupulous about how animals experience the end of their lives.

We have allowed our meat industry to develop out of sight into what it is now: often secretive, behind closed doors.

When a slaughterman spends time with their family and friends it is not considered good form to discuss in detail their day's work, so it is no wonder that some of them come to the conclusion that nobody cares how they do their work. The responsibility for taking the life of an animal is a heavy one, and we should respect that. 

We need to change the way we think about meat, to rid ourselves of our national squeamishness. 

Here's my remedy: 

- BBC Meatwatch, a spin-off of  the popular BBC programme Countryfile that doesn't miss out the bit of food production between farm gate and chef's kitchen

- Farm to Fork: like the supermarket version, aimed at children yet without the bit where an animal is killed missed out. 

- Taste the difference: not the supposedly higher quality supermarket brand but the public rediscovering its sense of taste and understanding what well-reared and well killed meat should taste like

For retailers the challenge is to talk more to their customers about where their meat was raised and who killed it. I'm proud to say that in a couple of weeks I'll be eating from a cow that my butcher Craig knew by name, a very beautiful Highland Cow. 

As consumers we need to ask more of our retailers: if your butcher can't answer your questions about where meat was raised and how and by whom it was killed, vote with your feet. 

There are good butchers and good meat producers waiting for you to ask, and there are others peddling intensively reared meat that had sad lives and equally sad deaths. 

It's time to be able to acknowledge the debt we owe to our beautiful, cute friendly farm animals; to smile in gratitude thinking about it's life before it reached our plate. When we say aww at the thought of a cuddly, furry beast it is a sign of our humanity, let's have the courage to carry that humanity into our meat production too. 

Monday, 30 May 2016

Why We Should be Concerned About 'Artisan' Food

Not made in a factory - made in my kitchen
I'm just about at the end of my tether with the way big food producers stretch the truth. We forgive, don't we, the superlatives of mass marketing that sweep us unthinkingly into buying big-branded products. We're not stupid: we sort of know that the stuff that comes out of factories isn't as wholesome as the country-kitchen, fake-farm names suggest. And there are rules about advertising standards that protect us from over-inflated claims aren't there?

My tether's been strained to breaking point though after the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) failed to find anything wrong with the claim that bread made with, what amounts to, sourdough flavouring powder can be fairly labelled as sourdough and as an artisan product. 

The Real Bread Campaign made a formal complaint to the ASA after an additive manufacturer encouraged bakers to  ' enter this lucrative [artisan] market without the need to invest in specialist staff...', this was in their advertising literature.

So, no need for the skills of an artisan baker then? If there was any doubt, they go on to reassure prospective purchasers that they don't need the any specialist knowledge to bake sourdough either, saying: ' learning needed on pH and acidity.’

The ASA took the view that because this advertisement was aimed at the baking industry no consumers of bread were likely to be misled. 

What appears to be at stake here is the definition of artisan and of sourdough. 

Am I worrying too much about this? Surely if consumers want to buy artisan-style sourdough-esque bread in a supermarket they should be entitled to squint a bit, look the other way and not worry too much about the provenience of their loaf so long as it looks and tastes ok? 

What matters

It would be all well and good if the buying public were not already onto the trail of research showing that sourdough and other long fermented breads are a bit special. Scientists have found that in long-fermented breads gluten molecules are changed making them less likely to cause unpleasant gastric upsets. 

There is a growing body of people seeking out sourdough and long fermented breads - the sort you might get from an artisan baker - on the strength that it might not give them stomach cramps and the you-know-whats. 

Suddenly the ability to know exactly what you are buying matters. A lot. 

What to do 

It seems we can't trust the food 'industry' to be completely up front about what we are buying - you should try asking a supermarket bakery counter operative (#notabaker) how long their bread was fermented for, for example. Equally the ASA are understandably fussy about their remit and the requirements of evidence.

It's no wonder that the Real Bread Campaign has titled its campaign for more openness in food labelling as striving for an Honest Crust Act.

Here's how to help make sure we don't get conned when we buy our bread (or for that matter other artisan labelled products)

- buy a baker you can look in the eyes and ask searching questions of.

- join the Real Bread Campaign and support its campaigning work

- lobby your MP (or other elected politician if you aren't in the UK)

- keep an eye out for misleading artisan-ads and send them to the Real Bread Campaign

Ultimately, trust your gut instincts. There are few shortcuts to good food, whether we know how scientifically special something is or not. Usually the enjoyment and nourishment we experience is a reflection of the skill, time and effort that went into making it.