The real cost of cheap food

The corporatization of food has eroded our ability to trust what we eat. (Photo Credit: faungg via Flickr)

The corporatization of food has eroded our ability to trust what we eat. (Photo Credit: faungg via Flickr)

Call it what you want: sakuraniku; rosswurst; sate kuda; shuzhuk; lo’i ho’osi; paardenvlees; viande chevaline. In the end, it’s still horse meat.

For many cultures across the globe, a selection of equestrian cuts is a normal part of the diet; but in most Western nations, horse is still a widely held taboo. For proof, look no further than the recent and raucous public outcry that rang through Europe when news of the meat adulteration scandal broke.

That consumers in the West are unwilling to accept horse meat in their frozen meatballs, lasagna or spaghetti Bolognese is one thing. But a more serious concern is the blatant deception being perpetrated on the consumer again and again. As our industrialized food system becomes more convoluted and our diet is increasingly processed, the benefit – beyond mere dollars and cents – for producers and supermarkets is less clear. We must continue to ask ourselves this: Do we really know what is happening to our food and, ultimately, can we trust it?

The dizzying chain of events that led to the horse meat contamination in Europe was a classic tale of industrial interconnectedness in a globalized world. Meat from a Romanian slaughterhouse was sold to a Cyprus-based meat trading company operating in the Netherlands, which was owned by a holding company located in the British Virgin Islands. From the Netherlands, this meat was sold to a French food processor, which shipped the meat to a processing facility in southern France, after which it was sold to another French company that shipped it to a subsidiary company in Luxembourg, where it was further processed into frozen dinners that ended up on the shelves of French and British supermarkets.

Think about it: a simple frozen dinner on a supermarket shelf actually travelled through five countries, was sold four times, and somewhere along the way had horse meat added to its ingredients. Given the very long supply chain, the rising costs associated with transport (let alone the costs of raising beef), plus the constant need to increase the bottom line, the opportunity to meddle in the name of profit was clearly too tempting. In fact, one supplier had already been convicted of horse meat fraud back in 2007.

In the last several decades, convenience and price have allowed prepackaged and processed food to disconnect consumers from their food sources. Quality and nutrition have suffered greatly, but so too has the opportunity to build a relationship with individual farmers, producers, butchers and vendors.

Food has become cheap, but when considered through the proper accounting lens, the price for that affordability has been precariously steep. The growing obesity epidemic, the increase in food fraud, and the general decline in trust around the food system is helping to shed light on the real costs of this so-called cheap food.

Never before has awareness around local food been so pervasive. Farmers’ markets continue to spring up wherever a supply of fresh produce exists, and along with the markets comes an associated public demand for wholesome food. More and more farmers are able to make a living wage selling to their neighbors in the city through CSAs, instead of relying on the whims of the commodity markets. And, for four years in a row, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association has recognized locally-produced food as the number one trend in dining.

It is safe to say that local food has matured past the point of being a trend. Instead, it has become the mainstay of chefs and restaurateurs who buy quality food from quality sources they can trust, in order to create unique culinary experiences for consumers. In Nova Scotia, while industrial agriculture is dying a painful death, there is a tangible increase in the number of farms according to the latest census data. All indicators point to a bright future for local food and those who supply it.

The mainstream media continues to talk about food recalls, E. coli and listeriosis outbreaks, horse meat contamination, and astronomical corporate profits. But ultimately, it’s hard-working local producers and conscientious consumers who are breaking the corporate grip on the food system by opting for high quality, nutritious food. That truly is a delicious outcome.

Chris de Waal is co-owner of Getaway Farms, a Nova Scotia-based family farm dedicated to raising healthy cattle and public awareness.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Carnivoress says:

    I love this article! I know and trust the farmers from whom I buy my food. I worry that urban sprawl is threatening the family farm. By supporting local farmers (many of them, family farms), I feel that we can keep this sustainable part of the local food movement alive. A valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t need to be rich to eat well. There are great cuts of meat that are affordable to anyone. Eating produce when it is in season is sustainable. Getting back to the basics seems a little strange, when living in a “modern urban setting” but you can really surprise yourself with how easy and affordable it can be. Ask tough questions of your storekeepers and urge them to carry locally produced/raised products. Buy only what you’ll need/use, have a strategy for leftovers, and eat well.

    • Rustik Magazine says:

      Great points Carnivoress, especially that you don’t need to spend a lot to eat well. Some of the cheapest cuts can actually be the most nutritious.

  2. EricaJoan says:

    Over a year ago I made a decision for my family to buy our meat locally. I know not only where it is coming from and how it is raised but I have established a relation ship with the farmers and butchers, knowing them by name. The product is always amazing, and the joy of knowing that I am providing the best for my family makes me feel good about my choice to support local, including Getaway who always impress me, to the point sometimes they get cupcakes in appreciation!!

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