19 February 2013

Fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house

So in Europe they're dealing with a food supply scandal where an abbatoir in Romania may or may not have sold horsemeat that may or may not have been labeled as such to a French food processor that may or may not have mixed the horsemeat with beef, where it may or may not have been included in steeply discounted single-serve lasagnas, meat pies, and other microwave-ready boxed meals in supermarket freezer aisles.

Now, horsemeat isn't intrinsically a poor food, unless the horse was treated with a drug not otherwise allowed in horse destined for human consumption, the detection of which was one clue that led to the scandal. But generally, it's my understanding that it tends to be less fatty and richer in iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than the grain-finished beef that Americans usually get. And I'm told it has a grassy flavor somewhere between that of beef and venison, which is at worst unobjectionable and at best mighty tasty. But if you don't want to eat it, you shouldn't have to; and if a package of food doesn't list horsemeat on the label, you should be able to trust that there's no horsemeat in the package. Anything else is fraud, pinching money out of your pocket.

But evidently you can't trust labels, even from high-profile international brands like Nestlé. This is because the path that ingredients take from the field or stockyards to your table is a circuitous one, crossing state lines (or national frontiers) over and over again. Ingredients pass through multiple hands, literally and metaphorically, as they're processed into the end product. And at every step, a processor needs to take its cut and make a profit on the value they're adding to the foodstuff. How do they do it? By using the cheapest ingredient or method possible before they finish touching the product and moving it to the next actor.

Then the final vendor does their balancing act with pushing down the retail price as low as possible while still eking out a profit. One of the problematic products in the U.K. was a bolognese sauce that retailed for £1.00/500g, or about $1.75/lb., or about $1.75 for a pint jar of red pasta sauce with meat. Think about it: that's an extraordinarily low price. If you were to make a pint of red sauce with ground beef in it, you'd need a couple of pounds of fresh tomatoes, perhaps a quarter pound of beef, a little bit of onion and other flavorings, a little oil, and some lemon juice and/or sugar, depending on the tomatoes.

Let me try to price it out if I were to make this sauce today at home. Winter is an awful time to buy fresh tomatoes, but it looks as though I get get a couple of pounds of tomatoes for $5.00; a quarter pound of beef for $1.25; enough onion for $0.25; and let's say another $0.25 for everything else in the ingredient list plus cooking fuel. My version of the sauce costs $6.25. It would likely be cheaper in the summer, when I can get deals on tomatoes. I could save some more by starting with a cheap cut of meat and grinding it myself, or teaming with another household and buying an entire side of beef to share. I think, though, that it would be very difficult to get my pint of meat sauce under about $3.00 while still using quality ingredients.

How to manufacturers do it, then? By buying their tomatoes in quantities larger than six items at a time, of course, with long-term contracts the scale of which I haven't seen since I studied the UCC in law school. The difference between what Campbell's pays for the tomatoes it puts in its soup and juices and what you pay for the tomatoes in your salad is, shall we say, disheartening. Same with the beef they put in their ravioli versus what you put in your sloppy joes. A single producer, a cooperative of farms, or an agribusiness operation will give Campbell's a better price than you'll see at the grocery or farmers market, because you can't possibly match the soup company's economy of scale.

That's only part of the story, however, because there are other actors between you and the tomato field when it comes to industrially produced food. Different components in the package's ingredient list may come from different suppliers, and the food may be only partially produced in one location before it's shipped elsewhere to be finished. Everywhere along the line, the actors will seek to maximize their profits. They'll opt for cheaper raw materials, which may not be as high-quality as what you would buy for your household. What kind of quality do you think you'll get when you pay $1.75 for a 16-ounce jar of pasta sauce?

A butcher in a BBC article explains that it's about "knowing and trusting the people [you] do business with." You can get to know your producer, abbatoir, transporter, and vendor; or you can learn a few languages and travel all over Europe trying to figure out which processor or factory is looking to save a few euro here and there by cutting the ground beef with ground horsemeat:

How's your French, German, Turkish, Greek, Dutch, and Romanian?
See the BBC page for a clickable version of the map with more information.

So, the Rowhouse Livin' fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house? Don't buy pre-packaged food with a price that's too good to be true. In fact, avoid pre-packaged, processed food whenever you can, because what you gain in price you lose in quality, nutrition, and trust, every single time. If time is a problem, try these: (1) use weekend downtime to make larger batches of food and freeze leftovers in smaller containers for later meals; (2) regularly prepare an extra portion of dinner in the evening, and enjoy it for lunch the next day; and (3) dust off the crockpot and use it at least once per week.

And with that, I'm off to lunch: a couple of slices of home-made pizza left over from Sunday dinner with friends. Absolutely no horsemeat in this pizza. Bon apétit!

No comments: