Comedian reveals unsavoury truth of food production

Virtual cheese, imperishable lamb and almost-beef burgers: TV show's stomach-churning revelations
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The Independent Online

With his gangly frame and thick-rimmed spectacles, Alex Riley makes an unlikely assassin. Unfortunately for Britain's £182bn-a-year food and drink industry, his wisecracks about its unsavoury practices in a new BBC TV series are little short of deadly.

In Britain's Really Disgusting Foods, the dry-witted comedian and TV presenter checks out the nutritional content of low-budget meat, interrogates the sourcing of endangered creatures and generally gets in the face of food manufacturers purveying products of dubious environmental and nutritional quality.

Like Morgan Spurlock – the Super Size Me documentary-maker who humbled McDonald's by eating its food – Mr Riley asks awkward questions about what is served up to the public by grocery chains and catering outlets keen to provide products for customers "at a certain price point".

Unlike Mr Spurlock, he engineers products himself in a makeshift laboratory to expose the legal production and labelling tricks used by the food business. In the first show, he demonstrates how it was possible to make a legally saleable chicken kiev with 10 per cent chicken meat and a large amount of breadcrumbs, skin and other animal by-products and, with the help of an industry expert, raised the amount of "meat" on the label to 17 per cent.

He also discovered the secret of a microwaveable lamb shank that lasts for 12 months out of the fridge being sold by a cash-and-carry outlet promoted by Gordon Ramsay. The foul-mouthed chef, who in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares described the meal as "shit in a bag", later explained he no longer endorsed the company.

In a show on dairy products, to be screened tomorrow, Mr Riley looks at the use of hydrogenated fat by a grocery chain and the supermarkets' sale of "singles", which look like processed cheese slices, and are sold in the cheese aisle but contain as little as 6 per cent cheese.

He also tackles the issue of unsustainable palm oil destroying forests. After he arrived at Mars UK HQ with five "orang-utans" and a tanker of "sustainable" palm oil, the chocolate-maker announced it would move to a certified supply by 2015.

In a third show which tackles the EU's Common Fisheries Policy and Nobu restaurants' sale of bluefin tuna, Mr Riley offers to buy Japan's whale meat reserves.

BBC executives commissioned Britain's Really Disgusting Food after the success of an hour-long pilot in 2008 in which the Sheffield-born comic made his own low-budget pie containing a mix of cheap meat, fat, gristle and connective tissue.

By exploiting labelling regulations, Mr Riley's Pies carried a picture of his cloth-capped father, tractors and cows to suggest a wholesome rural image and were blazoned with the words "traditional", "GM-free" and, on account of coming from Reading, "Made in Royal Berkshire".

Its BBC1 debut at 10.35pm on a Monday attracted 2.6 million viewers. "If they get a million they're usually pleased, so it captured the imagination," recalled Mr Riley. "A lot of people came up to me in the street and said: 'I don't believe what these food companies are getting away with. It's ridiculous'."

Mr Riley says that because the shows are aimed at "a typically non-documentary audience" he uses stunts and humour, while maintaining a "journalistic sense." "It's also a way of approaching companies that they're not used to," he explained. "If you're coming to them with a Paxman style they're quite well versed in dealing with that, but when you're coming at them in a disingenuous approach and say: 'Well done for getting 47 per cent beef into a beef burger' they're not quite sure how to take it."

The programmes start with a raft of rumours and half-baked ideas, some of which turn out of to be myths, and some true.

"The lawyers have said it's the hardest programme to make in the BBC," Mr Riley said. "People do send long legal letters." He added: "The BBC is the only kind of place where you could make this show. In the dairy show we talked about chocolate advertising, you couldn't do that on a commercial channel because they're all big advertisers."