GUEST POST: Supermarkets – The price we pay for cosmetic standards

Photography by Cyril Caton

We in the UK have become quite dislocated from how our food is produced and where it comes from – the vast majority of us having no relationship with or knowledge of the people who produce the food we rely on.

With over 80% of the UK’s population living in an urban environment, and 7 of the biggest supermarket chains having an 87% market share of the food we buy, it’s not surprising that that’s the case.

When it comes to the food we eat, we have relinquished much of the decision-making process to corporations whose actions are motivated by profit, and not by the interests of consumer wellbeing or that of the planet. We may be the ones who decide what to buy in the supermarket, but the choice we have is dictated to us by what they stock on their shelves – everything is pre-packed and preselected.

In the name of convenience we have put our trust in supermarkets to do right by us, and so tend to put little thought into the consequences of consuming what we do – rarely questioning how it was produced or where it came from. We don’t tend to concern ourselves with the true cost of buying almonds from California, where a severe drought has been on-going for 4 years; or prawns from Thailand where slave labour is used in the fishing and processing of prawns supplied to European supermarkets.

What is true of imported food is also true of British produce – there are hidden costs associated with buying our fruit and vegetables from supermarkets. They do their best to hide the consequences of their business practices – ensuring we are oblivious to the true cost of having perfectly straight carrots, or apples that are free from blemishes and just the right size. They hide the impact of a system they have engineered, and that we ultimately endorse through our support for them.

The cost of supermarket-imposed cosmetic standards on farmers is huge, and is one of the main reasons for around 30% of food grown on UK farms not making it off the trees or out of the ground.

This in turn means that 30% of all the water, pesticides, transport and other inputs used in farming this food is also wasted. According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, at a global level approximately 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted each year in growing crops that never actually reach the consumer.

Wasting food and all that has gone into producing the food is impacting on the major issues of our time – from food security to climate change, not to mention putting the survival of smaller farms at risk, and the health and livelihood of the farmers themselves.

Supermarkets claim that it is we, the consumers, who demand cosmetically perfect fruit and veg. But in a system created and sustained by the supermarkets, to great benefit to themselves, I think it’s more reasonable to assume the practice is driven by a desire to cut costs and maximise profits, rather than a desire to pander to consumer demand.

That said we have been complicit in the creation of this deeply flawed system – by not concerning ourselves with the impact of how our food is being produced. Relinquishing the decision-making process when it comes to the food we eat has come at a great cost to our society and the environment – both nationally and globally, and we must start holding the supermarkets to account – we can ill afford to let things continue on as they are, and despite an awareness within the industry as to the destructive impact wasting food has, things won’t change without us demanding it.

So while we may feel powerless in the face of large, multinational corporations, they are ultimately dependent on us consumers – without us they are nothing.

Collectively we need to push for change in their business practices – to end the imposition of absurd cosmetic standards and demand they sell ‘wonky’ fruit and veg. We need to push them to take all the necessary steps they can towards creating a fairer and more sustainable food system – a system that ultimately doesn’t result in millions of tonnes of edible food being needlessly left to rot every year.

This article was written by Chris King, the founder of ‘Food Is…‘ project.  

Read more about Chris and his project here.

INTERVIEW Jenius Social’s Jennifer Yong talks about creating connections through food

Following Finders Eaters interview with restaurant manager Michelle Brittain, we wanted to get the industry response on whether cookery classes and aesthetically appealing ‘food porn’ can make us ruthless in our efforts to impress, throwing out food which is dubbed ‘ugly.’ Who better to talk to than self-professed foodie and cookery class connoisseur Jennifer Yong!

Credit: Jennifer Yong
Credit: Jennifer Yong

Jen’s business – @jeniussocial – embraces the idea of social eating. The Jenius Social team offer not only cookery classes, but supperclubs, tastings, masterclasses and more…

Jenius Social

But are they sustainable foodies? I popped down to Hornsey Street in Islington and visited their venue at Studio 8 to find out… After a tour of the studio and kitchen facilities, which are spacious enough for about 30 people if it’s a hands-on cookery class – Jen sharing her hopes with me that Jenius Social will continue to be a watering hole for foodies who want to share, create and love food together – even without the huge range of classes the team are offering – she showed me around her delectable on-site deli.

“Creating Connections Through Food”

Despite some Jenius Social events bearing names such as ‘Pimp My Profiteroles’ – promising to ‘pimp your presentation skills like never before’ – Jen says that in her business, love of food is never lost to aesthetics. On the contrary, ‘I started up Jenius Social because I wanted to make connections through food, not tear them up at the roots.’ She acknowledges the need for society in general to be less wasteful, and suggests that any venue serving food or hosting events involving food has a responsibility, not only to its customers and the community but to itself and its staff, to minimise unnecessary waste.

The Challenges

‘Obviously it can be very difficult, when holding a cooking class, to judge how much each person taking part will eat, and how to divide the ingredients, ration and ratio it accurately,’ says Jennifer. Luckily for her, her previous job running digital ventures in the financial sector means she has a lot of transferrable skills which, along with her passion for food and socialising, have become the lifeblood of her business which she says she runs with the right combination of passion, fun, proportion and efficiency. In fact, Jen explained during our interview the waste-saving benefits of her cookery classes, and emphasised that Jenius Social and their customers have a genuine love and respect for their food. And that is why they come. Teaching people skills such as the proper way to fillet flat and round fish, and pinboning can be a very cost-effective way to get the most out of the fish and maximise the amount of flesh you retain when filleting, and that’s just one example, she says.

The Rewards

Guiding people how to source quality food in a cost-effective way is another service Jenius Social prides itself on. Knowing your food inside out, living it, breathing it, knowing how to prepare, cook and store it in the right way, is one of the best things you can teach to reduce food waste, Jen suggests. ‘In building this business I wanted to fuse my two favourite things: food and socialising, I realised there was nowhere in London that quite had that greet, eat and meet community vibe that I craved. But with Jenius Social, I hope I’ve created a place where food, passion, sustainability, and of course – community – collide.’

‘As Kevin Costner knows’, her website boasts, “If you build it, they will come.” Aaand if that’s not enough – as well as being food efficient, Jen tells me she is also space waste savvy to encourage her customers to mingle! ‘That’s the reason I designed my venue’ (Jenius Social has just four preparation tables) ‘people have to sit together, people have to work together, and get to know each other.’

Want to hear more? Listen to Jenius Social’s Head Chef Andrew Clements and Jennifer Yong discussing their venture here:

FEATURE Cookery Classes: Do They Spell an Abundance or Abandonment of Food?

Despite what Dr. Seuss might think, we foodies at Finders Eaters know that nobody wants green and eggs and ham for brekkie, but has a culture of increasingly glamorized food, or ‘food porn’ – served up beautifully on the TV by Michelin star chefs – and the prevalence of cocktail and cooking classes offering the skills to ‘wow’ friends at dinner parties – turned us into a bunch of rotten tomatoes where our attitude to food waste is concerned?

Interview with a convert: “The food wasn’t pretty enough”

I spoke to restauranteur and self-professed ‘savvy-saver’ Michelle Brittain, a previous London resident who now runs a successful bar and foodery ‘The Coach House’ (@thecoachy1) in Humberston: Before our interview, Michelle had told me how cookery classes she attended with her partner while living in London had ‘brought them closer to food and each other’ and that she’d always wanted to work in the food industry. “We had an amazing time in the classes at the London Underground Cookery School, as well as L’atelier des Chefs in Oxford Circus” she says, admitting that she herself has considered offering classes a the new establishment.

“I used to hold dinner parties all the time, using family recipes, and fancy skills and techniques I’d learned at the various classes – My friends used to say I was getting so good it was as if I’d been going to food finishing school!’

Michelle: On “discovering my food-friendly”

Explaining when and how her attitude to food began to change: ‘the real turn-around for me’, she says, ‘was when a close friend of mine was looking for a new job in central London, and started volunteering at FoodCycle events around the city to build her skills while she was searching. She asked me to go along one day.’

Having her eyes opened for the first time to a real food waste poverty problem, Michelle said the experience made her feel embarrassed:

“There were people in the City starving and there I was worrying about how wonky my macaroons were! It was…humbling, an eye-opener to say the least.”

Michelle admitted that if she’d made a starter or dessert for a friend that didn’t look right, she’d throw it away and make a new one if it wasn’t ‘pretty enough.’ And in this she’s not alone…

Food Frenzy!

Social media platforms such as Twitter have been inundated with tweets from anti-food waste organisations and communities about the billions of tons of food that is thrown away unnecessarily:

LoveFoodHateWaste (@LFHW_UK) have also been rallying support and raising awareness about the environmental and economic detriment that food waste can cause, providing tips to combat the unnecessary throwing away of food, while saving money:

But just how wasteful is this culture?

Cookery classes boast of teaching an abundance of culinary and presentational skills…but do they really stigmatise and encourage neglect of ‘ugly’ food that is otherwise still ‘fit for purpose’? Michelle says that she previously ‘didn’t think twice’ about throwing away aesthetically inferior foodstuffs if replacing them with fresh ingredients would make for better presentation; and she suggests that in some of the cookery classes she attended that culture of thinking was shared. However, Jennifer Yong, founder of Jenius Social (@JeniusSocial), a vibrant ‘social food hub’ in Islington, disagrees.

You can read (and listen) to Finders Eaters ‘Industry Response’ interview with Jennifer here on our website!

DEBATE: Should we do away with best before dates?

There’s a lot of confusion about dates- best before, use by, sell by… what does it all mean?

Each year one million tonnes of untouched food is thrown away after the best before date, even though it’s still safe to eat.

Best before dates indicate when the food will be at its best. It may lose its flavour or texture but remains edible.

Best before should NOT be confused with the use by date which refers to when the food can no longer be safely eaten. Sell by or display until dates are for shop staff only for the purpose of stock rotation.

Click on the image below for more information on food labelling:

http://ni.lovefoodhatewaste.com/node/2285
http://ni.lovefoodhatewaste.com/node/2285

With the exception of eggs, it’s legal to sell food after its best before date. And yet most supermarkets chose not to for aesthetic reasons.

Selling products past their best before date has proved a profitable business plan for Dan Cluderay, the founder of the Approved Foods company in Sheffield, who’s made over £4 million in the last 6 years.

He believes people are too paranoid about best before dates:

So if food is safe to eat past its best before date- why not get rid of the best before date altogether?

EU law on food labelling requires all items to have a best before date, or a use by date for products that would subsequently be dangerous to consume, such as raw meat or milk.

But since May 2014 the EU have been considering relaxing best before dates for long life foods after a proposal was submitted by Dutch and Swedish agriculture ministers.

Last week (5th March) Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) launched a campaign for supermarkets to extend best before dates by just one day, which their report estimates would save 250,000 tonnes of food a year.

Dr. Richard Swannell, Director of Sustainable Food Systems at WRAP:

We estimate that shoppers could save upwards of £500m, and businesses could save £100m in waste prevention alone.

But the British Food Standards Agency which enforces labelling supports the current system.

It’s also unclear whether best before dates are the biggest cause of food waste. It’s not only untouched food which is thrown away- a large amount of cooked and prepared food is wasted.

A study by WRAP identified over 30 common reasons for household food waste including buying and preparing too much, and not liking the food prepared.

I headed out to a North London supermarket to find out what you had to say about eating food past its best before date and whether we should ban the label altogether:

Tell us what you think!