Comfort like cold porridge

I go a lot by taste. It has usually been a fair guide to what I’m eating, but in this era of plant-based meat, I’m no longer as sure. I’m certainly in favour of diminishing my ecological footprint, and a career as a Vegan is not really in the cards, I’m afraid, but lately I’ve been wondering how much I can trust the advertised contents -even when they’re listed on the label.

To start with, I’m not always familiar with some of the ingredients -or, for that matter, their possible health effects. It’s all very reassuring to see them listed, but I’m not sure how that helps the average person decide whether or not the product is safe for them, especially long-term. Most of us, I suspect, confine our reading to things like the caloric content, and maybe the amount of salt. I doubt that even the health-conscious delve much deeper than, say, the amount of fibre or perhaps whether or not it is gluten-free. The rest is largely a meaningless blur; we assume that the rest of the ingredients have passed some careful scrutiny by the health authorities and are deemed safe.

In fact, I suppose the fact that they are listed as present on the label means we can trust both their safety as well as their presence. Short of operating our own food analysis lab, the only other option is to try our luck with another product whose ingredients we find more reassuringly recognizable. Of course, the elephant in the room -or the jar- is the ability to trust whatever is listed. That may be a mistake.

And yet, perhaps I was already suspicious after reading a novel years ago during my impressionable university days. As with many of the books I’ve read, I’ve retained only interesting fragments that often had little to do with the main theme, but I do remember (I think) a scene in the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair –The Jungle- that dealt with unsanitary practices in the meat packing plants in Chicago at the time. One of the workers fell into a vat of sausage meat and the because accident was purposely ignored, his body (I assume) was ground into somebody’s sausage. Not only did that have quite an effect on me reading about it some 60 years later, but it must also have shocked the public at the time, and led to greater regulation of the industry and the passing of a Meat Inspection Act.

But that was long ago, and I imagine most of us assume that things have improved steadily since then. Indeed they have, but human nature being what it is, there are always loopholes; there are always lapses in regulatory scrutiny.

I am an obsessive examiner of food labels, and have come to avoid most products that don’t display them. Of course, there are exceptions, where I have to trust the shop from which I buy them. Meat and fish, for example -only the store knows their source and whether they have good reason to believe what they have been told by the original seller.

You have to trust somebody, naturally, but what about the source the store itself relies on? How thoroughly do they investigate their providers? How vigilant should I be? How vigilant can I be?

I happened upon an article by John G. Keogh who is a researcher in Food Chain Transparency at the University of Reading.

‘The globalization of the food chain has resulted in increased complexity and diminished transparency and trust into how and where our foods are grown, harvested, processed and by whom.’ And he suggests that this very complexity has allowed people to exploit the system. Unless the food is locally sourced, there is seldom the ability for the retailer to have personal knowledge of the origin of their groceries.

Indeed, ‘Before modern supermarkets, a local village or town grocery store stocked up to 300 items grown or processed within a 240-kilometre (150-mile) radius. In comparison, our post-modern supermarkets carry an average of 33,000 items that travel 2,400 kilometres or more.’ So, perhaps as a result, the ‘Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suggests food fraud affects 10 per cent of commercially sold food. Various academic and industry sources suggest that globally, food fraud ranges from US$10 billion to $49 billion… If you add the sales of fake wines and alcohol, adulterated honey and spices, mislabelled fish and false claims of organic products, wild-caught fish or grain-fed meat, the numbers, and risks, increase significantly.’

Canada, as with most other developed nations, seems to be aware of the risks and has duly enacted regulations in an attempt to curb abuse, but the problem -not unique to Canada, of course- is in the enforcement. Apart from the vigilance required, it is hugely expensive, and the government has turned to genomics and DNA to detect some of the animal product deceptions. For example, there have been ‘a number of research papers uncovering food fraud and revealing the mislabelling of fish species in Canadian restaurants and grocery stores.’ And there was a paper ‘entitled “Re-visiting the occurrence of undeclared species in sausage products sold in Canada” as a followup to a previous study that showed a 20 per cent mislabelling rate for sausage… sampled from grocery stores across Canada [and] contained meats that weren’t on the label. The followup indicated 14 per cent of the 100 sausages tested still contained meat DNA that was undeclared on the label.’

I bought some fish the other day from a store I have come to trust. Of course the fact that it had a 25% off in a red sticker on the wrapper should have alerted something in my hindbrain, but I suppose I was in a hurry and thought it would make a delicious dinner. It purported to be steelhead -one of my favourites- but after I had prepared and barbecued it using a recipe I resort to for special occasions, it tasted suspiciously like Pink salmon. I loved it, though, so I wasn’t so much disappointed as surprised. So, even if it was mislabelled, I could think of no reason to complain to the store.

I still don’t buy sausages, though.