Monday, 20 February 2012

When you next eat a meal...

I was challenged today by this tweet from Brigit Strawbridge: "When you next eat a meal ask yourself 'Do I know where this came from? How it grew? How it died? Who picked it?' If you don't know find out."

While I am already well aware of the reasons for knowing where my food comes from and I didn't expect any surprises, I thought it would be an interesting exercise - to check up on how I'm doing, if you like, and see if there's anything I should improve. Of course, it's near impossible to figure out the finer details such as 'who picked it', but I would find out as much as I could.

Tonight's dinner was my favourite sausage and squash casserole - planned since yesterday with all ingredients already bought, so no prep was done with the exercise in mind!

Here we go...

Butter - Sainsbury's Basics. British, like all Sainsbury's milk too, though there's no other info on the pack.

Oil - Cold pressed Borderfields' rapeseed, grown by 'Coastal Grains' in Northumberland.

Sausages - Sainsbury's Butcher's Choice reduced fat sausages - the only ones I ever buy (I stock up every time they're on offer and freeze them). They're British - Sainsbury's sells only British pork sausages - and they bear the Red Tractor 'Assured Food Standards' logo too, which means they comply with the safety, welfare and environmental standards found here. Great stuff. British standards for pig welfare are much higher in the UK than pretty much anywhere else in the EU or US, as outlined here, so this is really important.

Onion - Sainsbury's again. Grown by 'Martin Greenshoots', it says on the bag, in Cambridgeshire. Their website says Greenshoots' objective is to help our members to collaborate in producing and marketing vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way, whilst exceeding our customers expectations”.

Garlic - Ummm, I don't know where I got this. I think it was from Budgens, who use British suppliers wherever possible (see here), so that's cool.

Sage - I get this from my garden when I can, but my plant is looking a bit weak and weather-beaten at the moment, so I used dried sage, which I got from the market - a local St Albans business called Sycamore Wholefoods which sells every herb and spice you could wish for (and a few others too) in big bags, plus grains, pulses and other bits and pieces. I refill old jars with these great-value bags. The label on the bag says... 'product of Turkey'. Ah.

Squash - This beauty was from Budgens, under a big 'local growers' sign!

Vinegar - Sainsbury's White Wine Vinegar, 'produced in the UK'.

Sugar - Silver Spoon, who grow all their sugar in the UK and claim to be 'the most efficient sugar manufacturer in Europe'.

Black pepper - Schwartz, 'packed in the EU'. (I'm guessing you probably can't grow black pepper in this country.) Schwartz's parent company, McCormick, says here "Over the years... we have created joint ventures in India and Indonesia, developed key strategic alliances in other major spice growing countries and generated a network of over 150 suppliers. Our joint ventures and strategic alliances provide year-round work for more than 1,000 employees, offering fair wages, medical assistance and advancement opportunities."

Chopped tomatoes - Sainsbury's Basics, 'produced in Italy'.

Cannellini beans - Sainsbury's. These say 'produced in the UK', which pleasantly surprises me!

Stock - From a Knorr Chicken Stock Pot. Knorr seem to have most of their factories in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and are owned by Unilever, one of those huge global corporations I automatically don't quite trust. But Unilever's website is pretty encouraging, with details of their three big goals to halve the environmental footprint of their products, 'help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being', and source 100% of their agricultural raw materials sustainably - and it seems they invest billions a year in communities and have strict standards for their suppliers which ban child labour, less-than-minimum wages, poor working conditions and the like.

Potatoes - Charlotte spuds from Sainsburys, grown in Cornwall.

Peas - Birdseye 'Field Fresh' Garden Peas, which means they were grown either in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Perthshire, using "sustainable farming methods". Nice.

That's eleven out of fifteen products from the UK (one from Turkey, one from Italy, two don't-knows), Red-Tractor-approved meat, and eight companies clearly striving for welfare, fairness, sustainability and low environmental impact. Not bad at all.

So what should I change?

If I grew more and stored better I could perhaps have been eating my own potatoes, peas, squash, onions, garlic and maybe even beans in the winter - that's an ongoing process and I'm sure I'll keep getting better and better at it. But there's nothing inherently bad about industry or trade - Britain's businesses need our support, of course, and so do food growers and communities abroad. I use a heck of a lot of chopped tomatoes, but I want to preserve some of my own this year, which will hopefully cut down those particular food miles.

I don't really think the black pepper is a massive problem, and it seems like the company's doing right by its suppliers. The sage from Turkey is a surprise - surely we grow sage here in England that would be more economical? I looked for information on where and how Sycamore Wholefoods sources its goods but they don't appear to have a website - maybe I'll chat to them next time I'm there and find out.

Then there's the stock. Nothing really bad going on, and I like the Knorr stock pots - and honestly, I'm not about to start making my own on a regular chuck-it-in-for-a-bit-of-extra-oomph basis. But perhaps there is a better option; Kallo's stock cubes are all organic and natural, made in the UK and Europe only, and the company is commited to sustainability, fair trade, recyclable packaging and all other good things. And they're cheaper. And they have a low-salt option. Right then, decision made.

And what have I learned?

Well, it looks like even the global giants are really pushing for sustainable and fair principles these days - great news - and we're seeing things like hydrogenated fats and monosodium glutamate slip more and more out of use.

I've learned that, though I got lucky this time, I don't always pay enough attention to where vegetables come from when I buy - I didn't know what to expect about most of these items until I went round the kitchen and checked. Buying British is important to me - I just need to remember that more often while I'm actually shopping! And I don't buy much organic stuff, do I?

And I've learned - okay, reaffirmed - that Sainsbury's is pretty awesome! A glance through their policies shows they source produce from the UK absolutely whenever possible (of foodstuffs that can be grown in this country, they say they source over 90% from Britain) with 100% of their milk, eggs, fresh chicken and frozen whole chickens, fresh sausages, and own-brand crisps and ice-cream all British, plus 100% of lamb when in season, and all cooked hams. All their bananas, coffee, tea and chocolate are fair trade, all their tuna is pole-and-line caught, and they're working hard towards using only sustainable palm oil. They use regional produce as much as possible, they use MSC certified fish whenever possible and keep a close eye on sustainability when it's not, all their kitchen towel, tissues and toilet roll are FSC certified, they have over 800 organic lines, they don't use hydrogenated fats, and they're committed to reducing waste, improving health and reducing their carbon footprint. As supermarkets go, it rocks.

Interesting. Well I thought so. I might even try it again a few more times.

Anyone else care to take up the challenge and assess your next meal?

Or do you see anything else wrong here that I should fix?

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