Tom Doorley: We get what we pay for
One grim fact stands out amongst all the statistics about current consumer behaviour. We now spend less on food than at any other time in history. And we get what we pay for.
Kevin Thornton, the celebrity chef, went a little far, a few years back, when he described intensively reared chicken as “poison”. But cheap chicken is bad food in the sense that it tastes of nothing. It has become a kind of animal tofu, a mere vehicle for other flavours.
Of course such food, flavourless as it is, does provide nutrition for those of us on very low incomes who cannot afford decent protein. And this is the argument that is always trotted out when food campaigners, like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, attack the intensive chicken industry.
But of course, there would be no mass-produced chicken if it was consumed solely by people on very low incmes. The shocking fact is that it is bought, in huge quantities, by people who should know better and who can afford better. It is a question of priorities.
In the 1950s, the only thing that mattered in agriculture was boosting yields. And by the end of that decade the food indsutry had been transformed. With a vast amount of raw materials at its disposal it needed to devise ways of “adding value” and thus was born the dubious science of food processing.
If you want one example that embodies the new approach to food and, ultimately, its debasement, consider the so-called Chorley Wood process. This new way of making bread was developed in Britain in order to save time and ingredients. It has been described as a way to make air and water stand up. This was the birth of the modern white sliced pan.
By the time I was a child, the homemade sherry trifle had been replaced, in most households, with Bird’s Angel Delight, a combination of emulsifying agents and synthetic flavours. Real food, the stuff that sustained previous generations, had come to be seen as outmoded and embarassing, a reminder of the bad old days.
You are what you eat. There is much truth in that old cliché. In an age where every second person goes on a so-called “detox” diet once a year year, and is more inclined to eat industrially processed vegetable oils rather than modest quantities of natural butter, we see ourselves as being very food-conscious.
The reality is that we are being duped and, by and large, we are eating rubbish. There are two reasons. For a start, we buy into ludicrously simplistic notions about food, such as the idea that chicken is somehow a “healthier” meat than beef, forgetting that the key to a decent diet is balance. And we have been persuaded that food has to be cheap. People who would never dream of buying a secondhand car or clothes from Dunne’s or Penneys, cheerfully snap up chickens for €3.99.
Food is so low down on our list of priorities and so cheap that we throw away a third of what we buy. We pay for our children to have maths grinds but give them industrial chicken for dinner. We spend more on holidays than we do on properly reared meat, farmhouse cheeses and local, organic vegetables. The bottle of wine that accompanies our Saturday evening supper often costs more than what goes into the oven.
Even in these hard times, a lot of us can afford to pay a premium for the real thing, the non-industrial, non-intensive real thing. The fact that most of us choose not to tells us a great deal about ourselves and where our priorities lie.
The next time you are tempted to express shock and dismay at the price of an organic chicken, just consider the difference between it and the €3.99 special offer version. And ask yourself if food is simply fuel. What does the food that you buy for yourself and for your loved ones tell you about how much, or how little, you care.