We’ve all had that sinking feeling when the headlines are yet again full of a scandal around a food we regularly eat. I’m not talking about diet issues, those perpetual ‘Is coffee good or bad for you?’ type debates. I’m thinking instead about unsavoury revelations that might have little, or even nothing, to do with your health, but are nevertheless disturbing. Is your favourite chocolate made using child labour? Is the palm fat in your ice cream driving the destruction of tropical forests and endangering the wildlife they support? Are livestock enduring a life of misery to produce your bacon, or milk?
Some of the recent exposés included Italian canned tomatoes (household name brands were accused of imposing inhumane working conditions on their migrant labourers) and parmesan-type cheeses (animal welfare groups took undercover footage of cows being horribly abused for milk production). In the space of a few weeks, these two popular household purchases suddenly had a question mark over them.
We all react differently. For people who try to shop in an aware, ethical manner it certainly makes life more difficult. If you strike the item off your list or even boycott it, you’re left searching for alternatives. And let’s face it, food shopping can be complicated enough these days, what with prices rising, and more people on tricky diets that already exclude common foodstuffs. Take every scandal on board and you could end up wondering if there’s anything left that you can eat.
But however challenging they are, uncomfortable insights about food production, be they from investigative journalists or campaigners, do play a concrete role in changing food industry standards for the better. They shine a searchlight onto production methods and this public scrutiny acts as a powerful incentive to companies to up their game.
Think back to the days when we bought canned tuna without a clue as to whether the species of tuna was endangered or fished by sustainable methods. Thanks to high profile campaigns, most tuna now carries ‘dolphin-friendly’ labels. Back in 2014, a scandal surfaced around the Thai shrimp industry – the UN and the Environmental Justice Foundation reported that migrants were being recruited through debt bondage and made to work in brutal conditions. Then supermarkets and seafood importers committed to improved working conditions. Similarly, highly effective campaigns targeting palm oil got companies in Malaysia and Indonesia to sign up to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. There’s still criticism that this initiative is paper-thin, but at least companies know they’re under international scrutiny.
It’s a pain when yet another food comes under controversy, but sometimes heads must be knocked together to get results.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman…
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.