Monday, 12 April 2010

Our Daily Bread

Ever since childhood I have been an activist of one form or another. After a while I thought I got the hang of it, but every now and then some jolt seems to happen, or something comes along to cause a major re-assessment.... or you simply get into trouble ( ah hah!).

In transition work we love to have a go at supermarkets and chains - they seem to stand for everything about the 'business as usual' model after all. But how have they become such an integral part of our lives, to the point that they are now responsible for 80% of our food supply?

Here I am having a brief look at a food staple - bread - as a symbol of the modern food industry.

Bread has been made by pretty much the same method for centuries - until something revolutionary happened in 1961 ( and I don't mean the onset of men growing their hair long). The introduction of the Chorleywood Bread Process meant that a new variety of loaf began, very quickly, to dominate the supermarket shelves. The process did away with the time-consuming process of kneading and proving, and allows the dough to be produced in a few minutes with the aid of high speed mixers, high temperatures, and chemical improving agents. These 'loaves' contain large amounts of water ( latest count about 45%), and 'flour treatment agents' to help retain the water and retain the shape of the loaf. Perfect for supermarkets. With me so far?

In the late 1970s I was associated with a group which exposed some of this stuff. We uncovered more and more.... like: the reason why the flour millers ( by now the same company as the bread manufacturers) liked to make white flour, was because they could make a nice profitable side-line by taking out the bran and wheatgerm from the flour to sell as animal feed. Some brown bread was made - by spraying the white dough with caramel.

Here's a well preserved copy of our leaflet -

And this is where the trouble started.... or at least it did with the accompanying booklet. One of our named and shamed companies, Associated British Foods (makers of Hovis amongst other things) took out a Writ for Libel against our group.

For us this was a rather obtuse kind of accolade. It reminds me now of something that wonderful journalist John Pilger said:
"The only stories you can believe ( from big corporations and governments) are the ones which are officially denied."

So back to the present. In recent times, there has been a welcome renaissance of real bread and artisan bakers. Even supermarkets have responded with in-store bakeries - although most of these are neither 'in store' nor a 'bakery', partially cooked dough being brought in and then crisped and browned on site. There's nothing like the smell of bread to entice more use of that credit card.

What's all this saying? I guess I could have chosen potatoes, or meat, or any number of vegetables - they have all been dealt with in a similar way by the food industry and supermarkets to produce convenient foods and maximise profitability ( its much more profitable to sell 'potato waffles' than it is to sell potatoes).

I love food and I love cooking it and sharing it with friends. The philosopher Epicurus recommended that we should never eat alone, as to eat alone is to " live the life of a lion or a wolf". I do actually eat alone quite a lot - a circumstance of my lifestyle - but I have ceased roaming the aisles of supermarkets as I once did. On the odd occasion when I find myself in one with a friend, I am faintly disturbed by the experience. I am not sure whether it is the assault on my senses... the whirring sound of those long banks of refrigerators or the sight of those bright lights over the fish counter competing with all that ice and refrigeration... I much prefer the sound of the thud of fresh potatoes dropping in my bag at the local greengrocer, the chat I have with the owner about the latest festival he went to, and the feel of the loose coriander leaves I buy ( a snip at 23p). Oh yes....and that wholemeal loaf..........perhaps I am a romantic kind of activist ? Chris Hull

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