The Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) was founded in 1993 with the objective of creating a counterpoint and challenge to the increasing industrialisation of the food-chain. A relentless intensification of agriculture which was depleting our countryside of its characteristic wildlife and forcing tens of thousands of farmers off the land, with the consequent loss of the mosaic of smaller, family farms that had created that countryside and sustained its creatures.
Food production was being concentrated on fewer, bigger farms to contend with the ever greater concentration of food processing and retailing. Thousands of small, local, regional abattoirs, dairies, butchers, greengrocers also went out of business as ‘Big Food’ dominated the food-chain. Along with a 25% decline in the numbers of farmworkers over the past two decades and a slightly lower rate of attrition amongst farmers at just under 20% over the same period, there has been a parallel exodus from the High Street. Over the past two decades since the CRT was set-up, smaller independent butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers have been going out of business in the UK at the rate of 50 a week.
What this means for the consumer is an ever longer and less transparent food-chain, which despite the reams of red tape and regulations (animal passports etc.) driving farmers to distraction and worse (farmers are three times more likely to take their own lives than the average UK citizen), provides the conditions for an endless cycle of food scandals and frauds. The horsemeat ‘food scandal’ whereby highly-processed ‘ready meals’ sold in major UK supermarkets have been found to contain not beef as claimed on the packaging but horse, reveals how far our food-chain has been stretched. The direct connection between where and how food is grown and raised by individual farmers and the people buying and eating that produce has been broken. In the case of horsemeat, whilst it was openly labelled as such at its source in Romania, it then travelled on to ‘traders’ in Holland through two processors in France, before entering Britain having transmogrified miraculously into ‘beef lasagne’ for sale on supermarket shelves. At one point, passing through a holding company suspected of involvement in the global arms trade.
But I wouldn’t be averse to eating horsemeat per se. Two of the alleged original sources of the horse meat appear to be perfectly legal and licensed Romanian abattoirs. Those supplied whole horsemeat clearly labelled as such to traders in the Netherlands. The grandson of the founders of one of the abattoirs, CarmOlimp, a family-run business set-up two generations ago, is actually Romania’s junior agriculture minister – so our farm ministers should be careful as to who they try to pass the buck onto for the crisis! The horses from which the meat came had been certified as fit for human consumption by Romanian state vets and that meat was probably as good, if not superior, to much of the actual beef, pork, and chicken out there on the market. The amounts of ‘Bute’ (phenylbutazone) found in some products (none from the Romanian sources) were minimal – hence our Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies’ comment that you’d have to eat 500 100% horse-burgers a day to reach the human risk/dose threshold.
In contrast, pork and chicken meat from intensively farmed animals and poultry can pose a greater human health risk due to the routine reliance on antibiotics to rear them. Residues can be an issue, but of more concern is the generation of antibiotic resistant bacteria from careless use of antibiotics in intensive units: indoor pigs can be on a course of antibiotics for 20% of their lives; new strains of the multi-resistant ‘super-bug’ MRSA have been discovered to have been ‘created’ on pig farms in The Netherlands; and 60% of bacteria found on chickens in a Belgium study were resistant to antibiotics widely used in and relied on for human medicine. Here in the UK, 90% of all UK farm antibiotics sold are destined for pigs and poultry. And all 13 antibiotics that can be administered to farm animals as ‘mass-medication’ – i.e. put in their feed or drinking water – are related to drugs used or on trial for use in human medicine. Unfortunately, routine prophylactic reliance on antibiotics is not confined to the cramped, infection-prone conditions of intensive pig and poultry units, on most UK dairy farms ‘Dry Cow Therapy’ is standard practice. DCT is where all cows have antibiotics squirted up into all four quarters of their udders when milking has stopped and they are resting ahead of the next calving. Thankfully, a good number of dairy farmers, including the CRT’s own tenant, Mike Clear, have reduced the use of antibiotics, relying instead on good husbandry and the environment.
The dependence on pharmaceuticals to produce the ‘cheap food’ consumers, or rather the supermarkets, demand is the deeper, underlying ‘scandal’ – and one which has a greater cost to human health. As the World Health Organisation stated as long ago as 2007,
“The widespread use of antimicrobials…in livestock production has intensified the risk for the emergence and spread of resistant micro-organisms. This raises particular concern since the same classes of antimicrobials are used both in humans and animals,” WHO 2007.
The horsemeat saga has shone a long overdue spotlight onto how stretched our food-chain has become and shown that, for all the PR and marketing puff, supermarkets know very little and perhaps have cared less what the ‘cheap food’ they boast about means in terms of production and processing. Unless you are prepared to cut corners, turn a blind eye to dodgy practices or rely on mass-medication to keep livestock together in such large numbers you can’t produce beef, pork or chicken at the prices supermarkets demand. That’s why so many decent farmers producing proper food went to the wall – they were being asked to sell their milk, meat, eggs etc. below the cost of production to enable the supermarkets to tempt shoppers with competition-cutting, price-slashing ‘Bog Offs’ (Buy One, Get One Free!). And of course, to make vast profits.
MAFF, Agricultural Statistics, UK, 2004. Environment Agency 2004, The State of Soils in England and Wales.
‘Ghost Town Britain I & II’, New Economics Foundation, 2002 & 2003.
Farmers, Farm Workers and Work-Related Stress, Policy Studies Institute. http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr362.pdf
Case Study of a Health Crisis, How human health is under threat from over-use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming, 2011. https://www.ciwf.org.uk/what_we_do/antibiotics_health_crisis.aspx