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Friday, February 18, 2005


"Like head lice through a nursery"

Surprise, surprise. Britain has another food scare.

359 products have been removed from supermarket shelves today after it was discovered that they had been contaminated with an illegal food dye called 'Sudan 1'. The Food Standards Agency's
official list reveals that most of the affected products are 'ready meals'.

'Sudan 1' is a red dye used for colouring solvents, oils and waxes, and is banned for use in foodstuffs throughout the EU.

Supermarket spin doctors will have been hard at work this evening stressing that everything is under control and that there's no need to worry. Technically speaking, they're right. The risk from eating the affected products is relatively low and we can be sure that the supermarkets acted promptly to clear their shelves.

Instead, we need to look more deeply at the basic problems this latest scare has revealed. Examine the FSA's list of affected products. It comprises mostly supermarket own-brand products, which are manufactured by contract suppliers.

This has not gone unnoticed. Food campaigner Joanna Blythman said there was no excuse for a substance like 'Sudan 1' finding its way into food and added,

"But because supermarkets now control 80% of the nation's food basket, if
there is a problem it spreads like head lice through a nursery."
In other words, the monopoly position of the big supermarket chains means that any problem is a big problem.

Consider also the preponderance of 'ready meals'. We know why supermarkets sell them - the profit margins are enormous compared with fresh foods. But why do people buy this overpriced muck? Cue the clichés about "busy mums" with "no spare time" who "juggle their lifestyles". People do have the time but lack the motivation. Unlike other Europeans, it seems that, for many British people, eating is a chore.

And how can people eat these things? Do they ever read the list of ingredients? The illegal food dye was in a chilli powder used by Premier Foods to make a Worcester sauce used in other products. In other words, the quality of this food is such that it needs enhancing with an artificially-coloured synthetic version of Worcester sauce.

Look again at the FSA's list of withdrawn products. What on earth possesses people to buy processed foods with names such as these?

- Asda Cumberland sausage sandwich filling
- Asda Vegetarian Spaghetti Bolognese
- Asda Onion Gravy in a pouch
- Asda GFY 1000 Island Dressing
- Happy Shopper Seafood sauce
- Brakes Cooked Mexican Meat
- Co-op Thin and Crispy Hickory BBQ Chicken Pizza
- Morrisons Prawn Coleslaw
- Morrisons Bettabuy Minced Beef & Onion Pies (4 pack)
- Netto Farmer's Fayre Vegetable Soup
- Sainsbury Chicken & Bacon Caesar Style Pasta
- Somerfield Tex Mex Combo
- Tesco British Meatballs & Mashed Potato
- Tesco British Cottage Meal for One
- Waitrose Sandwich Filler Tuna Mayonnaise
- Pot Noodle: Hot Dog & Ketchup Flavour

The more middle class and health-conscious amongst you may care to note that many of the listed products are part of the supermarkets' various 'healthy eating' ranges. And you smug Marks & Spencer customers can wipe that grin off your faces. There are 15 M&S products on the list.

Good food isn't about expense or even 'organics'. It is about eating freshly-prepared, locally-sourced fresh foods that are in season. Anyone who cares about what they eat knows that. As long as most British people don't care, they'll continue to get the food they deserve.

PS: Read Joanna Blythman's article in Wednesday's Guardian. She points out that this scandal reveals how much of the supposed 'choice' in our supermarkets is illusory. Wednesday's Guardian also carried an investigation into how the contamination occured in the first place. Meanwhile, the list of contaminated foods and affected countries continues to grow.

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