What is it with you Brits and the disgusting food you eat?

Sudan 1 is the least of our problems, says the IoS restaurant critic Terry Durack. He arrived here from Australia years ago, and his stomach still hasn't entirely forgiven him
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Indy Lifestyle Online

What is happening to our food? No matter how misguided the government, how maddening your boss, or how miserable your day, you could always go home, crack open a bottle of red and sit down to a meal that would make you feel better. Now I'm so worried about the meal, I can't even enjoy the red.

What is happening to our food? No matter how misguided the government, how maddening your boss, or how miserable your day, you could always go home, crack open a bottle of red and sit down to a meal that would make you feel better. Now I'm so worried about the meal, I can't even enjoy the red.

If it isn't BSE or foot-and-mouth, it's salmonella, or frozen chicken from Thailand, or toxic salmon farms, or pesticides, or GM food, or aluminium in our tap water. Now, following the recall and destruction of more than 470 supermarket ready-meals and sauces, due to a single ingredient being contaminated with a cancer-promoting dye used in shoe polish, our trust has been fully eroded.

The overwhelming feeling is one of powerlessness. We are the generation of the food-scared. We reel from one scare to the next, we pore over labels like mad Dr Watsons trying to crack indecipherable codes, and we view even a crisp apple with suspicion.

We have every right to be terrified. What the hell are these people doing to our food, and who the hell are they, anyway? What can we trust if we cannot trust the food we put into our mouths?

We can't trust the supermarkets, whose intention is to bring food to the masses as cheaply and with as much profit as humanly possible. We can't trust our hospitals, schools, prisons or nurseries, because they buy cheap food to meet their low budgets. We can't trust the food safety authorities, because they don't seem to be as rigorous in their testing as they should be. And, tragically, we can't even trust our own kitchen cupboards, for who knows what is already lurking there, which we will be told about in three years time.

Come to think of it, has anyone asked the glaringly obvious question: what was Worcestershire sauce doing in all those products in the first place? When I cook at home, I don't add Worcestershire to cauliflower cheese, chilli nachos, char sui pork, lamb kofta, or lamb tagine.

It is because most of these products are so dull and bland, and made with such cheaply produced, flavourless ingredients, that they need flavour additives such as salt, sugar, fats and artificially coloured sauces to give them any character whatsoever. Excessive refrigeration of sandwiches and salads also dulls flavour, so the makers need to boost it through other means.

The second most obvious question is why are people buying these things in the first place? BBQ Jumbo Chicken Tenders? Chicken Medley Deep Pan Pizza? What utter, utter crap it is. People who buy this stuff for their children may as well beat them about the head with a belt at the same time. The abuse is the same.

Or perhaps you feel like hot dogs for dinner? At my local supermarket, a can of eight hot dogs contains "mechanically recovered chicken (56 per cent), water, pork (11 per cent), wheat starch, pork rinds, salt, pork fat, stabilisers (E541, E542), spices, anti-oxidant E316, glucose syrup, hydrolysed vegetable protein, citric acid, sugar, dextrose, flavourings, casing: beef collagen, preservative E250, colour E155, water, salt". Um, no thanks, I think I'll just cook pasta with aubergine and capers, instead.

The final question (I promise) is: are we to blame? By wanting a better job/house/car/holiday, we work ourselves to the bone, ensuring that we "don't have time to cook", believing that anything other than making money is a waste of our time. The fact that it only takes five minutes to crack a few eggs into an omelette or grill a mackerel seems to have passed us by. It is also a little weird that we are currently taking less responsibility for what we eat at a time when the world has never been more full of celebrity chefs, miracle diets, glossy cook books, nutrition, and health and fitness advice.

And the more advice we get, the more confused we are. Two weeks ago, the Marine Stewardship Council issued a list of what fish to avoid, in an effort to stop the world's fish stocks being exploited into oblivion. But how do we know where the fish on the slab came from, whether they were line-caught, dredged, farmed or otherwise scooped out of pristine waters by vestal virgins? Again, who can we trust?

The horrific issue of children's health is being tackled on a number of fronts, not least of which sees Jamie Oliver swapping school-dinner "scrotum burgers" of mysterious origin for his freshly cooked spaghetti pomodoro. The kids don't like it, he says, until the chips and chicken nuggets are nowhere to be seen, and then they'll eat the good stuff. There's a lesson there for adults as well.

The obvious answer to anyone who loves good food is to put taste first. As an Australian, I often find myself blinking in disbelief at the average Briton's relationship with food, at how unimportant it is to so many people. But then, I grew up in a country where good food was available to all at a good price. Here, eating well is an economic issue, a class issue and an education issue. Good food is available - at a price. And nobody is going to pay the price if good food is simply not a priority in their lives.

So where do we go from here, apart from straight to hell in a supermarket trolley? The very fact that we are more aware of the dangers has to be healthy in itself. We must not only be vigilant, but paranoid. "Never trust nobody" is the new foodie mantra, especially when it comes to the supermarkets who control around 80 per cent of our food supply.

Their intensive methods of production and centralised distribution enforce a system that encourages the use of food additives and preservatives. It would be wonderful if we could boycott them for everything except loo paper, and instead give our money to small independent suppliers, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, delicatessens, farmer's markets, ethnic specialists, local growers and reputable online merchants. Wonderful, but unrealistic.

The media itself should stop baying for blood, and start trying to build a better food culture. Few food commentators are really trying to improve our lot, rather than just analyse and amuse. Joanna Blythman, author of Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, is one of the more effective industry watchdogs. Charles Clover has written a coruscating book on the current state of overfishing (The End of the Line) in which, among other things, he throws out the challenge to our celebrity chefs to do something about the endangered halibut and cod on their Limoges plates. Giles Coren, restaurant critic at The Times, recently instituted a new scoring system that deducts points from restaurants not offering organic meat or fish.

None of us is powerless. We have the power to reject cheap, industrialised convenience food, to choose fresh ingredients and prepare them ourselves. We can make the time. Hell's bells, it's only food. So go and buy a decent lamb chop and throw it on the grill. Boil a few potatoes and mash them with butter and sea salt. Wash a lettuce, and toss it with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Then sit down and crack open a bottle of red, and raise a glass to our good health.

Terry Durack has been shortlisted as Food and Drink Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards