Give us cookery lessons, not labels

Official controls are powerless in the face of a nation's bad taste, writes Emily Green
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THE authenticity police are not happy. Findings by a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) committee, and echoed this week by the Consumers' Association, are not so much critical about what passes as food and drink, but how the processors involved describe the stuff. There are some big fat porkies. The committee censors the like of overly watery bacon, diluted spirits, a mixture of skimmed milk and hydrogenated vegetable oil masquerading as cheese in takeaway pizzas. Other nasties include over-breaded fish-fingers, chicken pate that contains pork, "ham" that is reformed meat, "halal" meat containing pork.

So what can be done? Maff is calling for more detailed labelling, which will probably arrive in the form of an EU standard called Quantitative Ingredient Declarations (Quid). This will take several years to implement. Ever helpful, the CA adds: "Quid should be introduced as soon as possible."

It is worth asking at this point: will it work? Quid might help the diligent shopper. We should, indeed, be told the proportion of tuna to oil in a tin. Irregularities allowing the Irish to export burgers undercutting our minimum meat content standards by half should be corrected. Few would argue that sleazy butchers selling turkey meat as chicken should be shut down, or sleaze banished altogether, while we're at it. Yet ever expanding squads of environmental health and trading standards officers along with more detailed labels are not, in themselves, a solution.

Trading standards officers, for example, cannot protect us from our own laziness. We respond to the selling techniques employed in packaging, not the fine print. Arguably, the Marks & Spencer shopper who ate chicken liver pate with pork in it only had to read the label to see that pork was listed. We simply, as a rule, don't read the ingredients columns on labels. We do not think of ourselves as drinking mixtures of carbonated water, sugar, colour (caramel), phosphoric acid, flavourings, caffeine, because all we look for on the can containing it are the words Coca-Cola. We don't ask just how our crisps are made to taste of bacon or prawn cocktails. We don't really want to know.

Our notions of "fresh" are bizarre. Take, for example, the weekday dinner staple of many an office worker: "fresh" pasta. Pasta Reale Ltd of Crawley, West Sussex, sells 350g tubs of cappelletti described on the front of the packet as "fresh egg pasta filled with delicately spiced meats". For good measure, there is a corporate testimonial: "We specialise in fresh pasta using the finest ingredients, traditionally made to authentic recipes. The fresher. The better." The ingredients on the back look relatively harmless: durum wheat semolina, wheat flour, water, beef, egg, mortadella Italian sausage (with preservatives sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate), rusk, chicken, egg white, parmesan (medium fat hard cheese), vegetable seasoning, chicken bouillon, salt, garlic powder, nutmeg, rosemary, onion powder, pepper, minimum meat content 18 per cent". Yet to call them fine or imply the product is authentic is pure humbug. No self-respecting Italian would refrigerate fresh pasta, much less for 10 days. Precious few would use powdered garlic or onion. The recipe is authentic only insofar as it is authentically industrial. The cement-like qualities of any "fresh" pasta kept in a fridge for so long should come as no surprise.

Labelling arguments could go on until hell freezes over. The upshot is that, if we are worried about what we eat, we should stop eating junk and think twice about our love of convenience. Which is the greater wrong? Oxo selling chicken stock cubes made with beef bones or our expectation that chicken stock can somehow come in a cube? Some of the food products criticised in the CA report were found in petrol stations. If we expect to buy lunch from garages, we deserve the likes of Millers Cornish pasties, or should I say mixtures of "wheat flour, water, potato, animal and hydrogenated vegetable fats with emulsifier E471, onion, beef, pork, carrot, modified starch, salt, autolysed protein, soya protein isolate, glazing agent (caseinate, vegetable oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, dextrose), spices, hydrolysed vegetable protein". All this for "only 89p".

There is a basic problem with food authenticity that no panel of experts, no label can solve. A judge of authenticity must have known the authentic article in the first place. This experience is becoming depressingly rare. How many of our young will have ever tasted a real Cornish pasty? If trade descriptions were to comply to strict definitions, then shepherd's pie should not be made with beef mince, but with lamb, as its name so clearly implies.

Almost all of the bread we eat is a far cry from the traditional staff of life. It comes from commercial plant bakeries and is leavened not just with yeast, but with the help of commercial shortcuts, either the addition of chemicals or fierce battering. This would have to be re-dubbed a "mainly starch product" made with "denatured flour, yeast, vitamin C, soya flour".

The Maff findings that some food processors do not differentiate between ham - a prime cut traditionally from the back leg of a pig - and sandwich meat that has been mechanically formed from various pork products, fat, water and soya, are a sour reminder that we don't know the ABC of our food. It is we, after all, who buy the stuff and the difference is obvious. We could, and probably should, do as the French did when first alarmed by the spectre of "le fast food" and introduce more cookery and food courses into our primary schools. Yet this is a long-term, difficult process. No enjoinders to hurry from the CA will speed it up.

The biggest problem, perhaps, is economic. The people most vulnerable to junk food and food fraud are those least equipped to turn to expensive, authentic equivalents. An 800g loaf of properly fermented bread will cost from pounds 1.80 to pounds 2.90 from a craft baker; supermarkets retail sliced plant bread for as little as 32p a loaf. A properly matured slice of farmhouse cheddar cheese will cost in the region of pounds 10.50 for 900g, or pounds 5.25/lb from a dairy; its shrink-wrapped, processed equivalent is sold for more like pounds 6.70/kg or around pounds 3/lb in a corner shop.

Quid is a decent initiative. Yet it will do nothing but spell out our revolting eating habits in small print and E numbers. Government cannot enforce standards that the public does not want. It can only police fast- food ghettos created by poverty, negligence and deeply ingrained bad taste.

My advice is to invest in a copy of a new book, The Food We Eat by Joanna Blythman (Michael Joseph, pounds 7.99). It instructs shoppers in the rudiments of choosing healthy foods, and explains what goes into the making of highly processed equivalents. With luck and a bit of perseverance when it comes to shopping, those of us who use this book should not be too terribly dependent on Maff scientists to decode what we eat.

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