How safe is your Christmas dinner?

Click to follow
It's Delia Smith's big day ... everyone has dusted down her Complete Cookery Course, wiped last year's gravy off the jacket and as one, the country is ready to create a feast that will knock the socks off anything served up in years past. It may not be the healthiest meal of the year, but is essentially wholesome... meat, two veg and Delia's roast spuds.No processed food, no ready meals, and no dilemmas about the latest edict on beef. Christmas dinner is all about BSE-free poultry with fresh vegetables. Lean and clean: easy on the double cream, the Stilton and port and it's positively health food!

Well, not quite. The supermarket Santa has a few unsavoury surprises. Unless you buy organic or find out exactly who is supplying your meat, vegetables and mince pies, there is no escaping the clutches of a food industry determined to mess around with your food - from the antibiotics used to plump up the turkey to the pesticides lavished on Brussels - all in the cause of a cheap good time. We love to spend, but not on food. The nation that spends pounds 700m a year on renting and buying videos is reluctant to spend a penny more than necessary on the staff of life, even at Christmas. So let's take a look at those seasonal goodies.


Going for 39p a pound this year. Most consumers want their meat to be "healthy", and that means low fat. The suppliers are happy to comply - selectively breeding turkeys and feeding them antibiotic growth-promoters to give them those massive, low-fat, white-meat breasts, breasts so large that they can't be supported by their legs, which means that a lot of them arrive for slaughter with broken limbs.

Cheap, "healthy" meat has a high price, for animals and for us. For the animals, it's living short, accelerated lives crammed together, changing them into neurotic cannibals - pecking and biting each other to the point that producers anticipate the carnage and snip off the piggy tails, and poultry beaks. Then they get to eat each other; we've learned about the dangers of turning herbivores into carnivores from BSE, but the news has not reached the intensive pig and poultry industries. Until an as- yet- unspecified date next year, pigs can eat pigs, poultry and poultry droppings while poultry can eat poultry, poultry droppings and pigs.

And what happens in the factory sheds lands on our plates: Salmonella and campylobacter bugs on the carcasses come into our kitchens to contaminate work surfaces, part of the reason why food poisoning cases have risen six-fold in the past 15 years. And we don't just get the bugs - the residues of the antibiotics are there too. The World Health Organisation is concerned that factory farms are breeding a generation of bugs resistant to antibiotics. Not a huge threat to your health this Christmas, but scientists are questioning whether we've embarked on a process which may render antibiotics useless early in the next millennium.


A good choice for garnishing the bird would be simply pork, wheat rusk and seasoning, but the worst would be a more complex concoction of mechanically recovered meat (that's where the deboned carcass is put through a giant squeezer to produce a grey slurry of fat, gristle, sinew and bone), cereal, preservatives and water - but it'll be cheap. And if you are really unlucky you will get sausages with a helping of polyphosphates - all the better to hold the water that makes them weigh more on the supermarket shelf, but then reduces them to a less than attractive limpness on the plate.

Smoked salmon

Garnished with lettuce, it's the choice of many as a first course. An apparently ideal - and this year very cheap - start to a meal, low in fat, high in healthy fish oils with a little anti-oxidant greenery on the side. Perfect, except that the reason it is cheap is the same as the reason most turkeys are cheap - intensive farming. The supermarket salmon packets show Highland fish farms with misty mountains and sparkling lochs, but under the surface of a lot of those lochs the salmon live crammed nose to tail in cages - an environment beloved by sea-lice and disease. So more antibiotics, more chemicals in the lochs, and cheap smoked salmon.

Though for how much longer is in doubt. Those sea-lice have become used to the favourite pesticide, dichlorvos, and are now fairly immune. The favoured replacement by the farmers is Ivermectin - a very toxic, persistent chemical. The Scottish Office has delayed giving it a licence, but 15 farms are now trying it out. The salmon farming industry promises that no residues will find their way to the supermarket shelf, but Marks & Spencer and Tesco aren't convinced - they won't stock any salmon treated with Ivermectin. There are good salmon farmers, using better husbandry instead of a pharmacy to solve their problems - but their products cost more.

Brussels sprouts

They and the lettuce seem to radiate health and wholesomeness. But winter lettuce has been the focus of concern recently at the Ministry of Agriculture central laboratory, where they test for pesticides. A large percentage were showing unwelcome levels of pesticide residues. No excessive levels on the Brussels sprouts, so no worry there - unless you've been listening to scientists such as Dr John Wargo at Yale University, who call the science behind our pesticide regulations shoddy and inadequate.

Christmas pudding

A winter warmer from a more active, less centrally-heated age, made "healthier" this year with vegetable suet. That's vegetable oil chemically hardened to produce a hydrogenated fat containing trans-fatty acids which, as Dr Walter Willetts of Harvard showed in his massive study of the diets of American nurses, is a significant factor in the current epidemic of heart disease.

Brandy butter

Your cheap version might have a touch of the hydrogenates too. Another victim of our crazed pursuit of low-fat foods. The fact that Americans, who buy more low-fat foods than any other nation, are also the fattest on earth does nothing to stop us or our food industry going down the same dangerous cul-de-sac. We ignore that, just as we ignore the fact that the people of Gascony outlive the rest of Europe on a diet larded with geese- and duck-dripping in fat. Just as we ignore the whole so- called "French paradox": that the French eat fatty meat and butter and cream, yet have levels of heart disease almost as low as the rice- and fish-eating Japanese.

Stilton, mince pies, port

Enjoy them - though if you bought the pies, you might have some genetically- modified soya in the pastry, the first of a new generation of genetically engineered foods. Next year there might be genetically modified sugar in the pudding, cornflour in the gravy and ... whatever else can get European approval. Then eat the Stilton, relish its mature richness and mourn the fact that a hysterical Conservative government pushed its makers into pasteurising this noble cheese out of a misplaced fear of listeria poisoning. Just as the current government seems set to put its feet on the same path, with Jack Cunningham now denouncing raw milk. Health is a moveable feast when it comes to food policy in this country. We focus on the ill- effects of excess booze and butter, and victimise small food producers rather than looking too closely at the health problems that come from our multi-billion pound agribusiness and food-processing industries. It's cheaper that way.

So let's end the meal by raising a glass of port and drinking to a saner attitude to food, where the wholesomeness of a meal is measured in the quality of the ingredients not calories, fat grams and alcohol units. Though if you are worried about alcohol and want to stay within the daily, government-approved unit allowance, just remember the Danish government's units are 50 per cent larger than ours. Skol?

Sheila Dillon produces Radio 4's 'Food Programme'; Marie Helly produces Radio 5 Live's 'Special Assignment'