Korean Cornish

supermarket logosEither television programme-makers go out of their way to select annoying people to present food programmes or all chefs and food critics are arseholes. I think it must be the former. Jonathan Meades is OK, for example. Delia isn’t an areshole. Probably.

Well, anyway, I watched a food programme last night on Channel 4, “What Goes In Your Basket?” [http://www.channel4.com/food/on-tv/food/index.html] in spite of the annoying presenter, because I am genuinely interested in the food I buy and its health and environmental impact. I hadn’t seen previous episodes, but this one was about labelling and, to use a grand word, provenence.

Being a frequent visitor to Italy, I’m well aware of the concept of legal protection given to geographically distinct foods. Wines, of course, have had that kind of regulation for a long time. You can’t call something “Chianti” if it’s not from Chianti, but olive oil is another product with many regional labels, protected by law as a “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO, or DOP for the Italian) and many cheeses, meat products and even beans, lemons and basil have DOP protection in Italy.

For the UK, there are only 18 PDO-registered products, compared with a total of 189 in Italy and 116 in France. That disparity is probably partly because of a slowness to embrace EU integration in “Little England”, but also, I suspect, reflecting a real loss of regional food specialties in the face of supermarket homogenisation.

That doesn’t stop the supermarkets pretending though, and that was really what a segment of the programme was about: the vague associations used on food labels to make the consumer think that the product came from a nice farm and not a huge factory. Actually, I live in the country and, although I’m not of rural origins or of farming stock, I have a fair idea of what farms are like, and “nice” is not generally the word. Still, that’s the whole point, the supermarkets are playing on romantic, idealized notions, not reality.

supermarket aisle

For example, M&S have created a brand of “Oakham” chicken, with the implication that it’s a regional product related to that town, which of course it isn’t. In fact, the programme found that a number of different supermarkets receive their branded chicken from the same large suppliers (such as Tesco’s “Willow Farm”). And it’s not just the supermarket’s own products. Heinz “Farmers’ Market” soup has never seen a farmers’ market in its life.

Now all of that was quite interesting, but what really struck me was how easy it is for the labellers to mislead people, because all the consumers on the programme were so gullible. The big names didn’t get to be big by being ethical, yet everyone seemed to take their word at face value. I remember reading a political journalist’s description of his work, where he said that every time he interviewed a politician, he kept a little motto running though his mind: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”.

I’m going food shopping this afternoon, and, as usual, I’ll be checking the labels for what they really mean, not what they blandly insinuate. Why is this lying bastard lying to me?

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