Update on organic versus GM

As I have started to emerge from the awards frenzy of the last few months I have been catching up what has been happening in the rest of the world… And I thought that these three bits of news deserved a wider airing.

Russia not interested in genetically modified products

The first comes from the RT Russian news channel site. (RT, they say,  provides an alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaints international audience with the Russian viewpoint. It is also the first TV news channel in YouTube’s history to reach one BILLION views!) RT reports that, in the future, Russia will not be importing any GMO products. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a congress of rural deputies last week that:

‘If the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then. We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food.’

At the end of February, the Russian parliament had asked the government to impose a temporary ban on all genetically altered products in Russia.


grapes‘Organic Farmer Taken to Court for Refusing to Spray Pesticides’

The second report comes from Eco-Watch and is less encouraging. The French Agriculture ministry is, apparently, prosecuting an organic, nay biodynamic, wine grower, Emmanuel Giboulot, for failing to use an insecticide to control the leafhopper Scaphoideus titanus which the authorities fear may spread to other vineyards. M Giboulot believes that that the pesticide is ineffective and that there are far more successful, natural ways of controlling the disease.

Check in to the Eco-Watch site for the full story.

Vermont passes bill requiring all GM foods to be labelled

And finally, from Natural News, a report on the battle to label GM foods in the US. This is a long-running fight which, up till now, the ‘GeneGiants’ have been winning. (They successfully killed Prospositon 37 in California at the end of 2012 which would have required GM foods to declared that they were indeed genetically modified.)

Campaigners (and indeed the Gene Giants themselves) believe that if consumers actually knew that the foods they were buying/eating were genetically modified, they would not buy them. Moreover, if they realised that many of the foods that are labelled as ‘natural’ are actually genetically modified (which is the situation at the moment) they would be very angry. Which is why the campaigners and the Gene Giants have been so desperate to get – or prevent – laws requiring the foods to be labelled onto the statue books.

Campaigners have not been entirely unsuccessful; they have got legislation passed in Connecticut and in Maine requiring GMO labelling – but only when other states pass similar legislation. The mandatory labelling now scheduled to come into force in 2016 in Vermont will have no such ‘trigger’ clause.

The hope, or fear, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is that once foods can be labelled as ‘not containing GM’ in Vermont the ‘infection’ will spread as ‘national food and beverage companies and supermarkets will not likely risk the ire of their customers by admitting that many of the foods and brands they are selling in Vermont are genetically engineered, and deceptively labeled as “natural” or “all natural”; while simultaneously trying to conceal this fact in the other 49 states and North American markets’.

Natural News quotes the Monsanto executive who admitted, 20 years ago that ‘if you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.’

Check in to the lengthy Natural News report for more on the kind of money and corporate effort that has so far been invested in keeping GM on the road….

Another public relations disaster – Tesco’s ‘may contain nut’ warnings

tescoCompanies spend a fortune on ‘public relations’ so how do they so often get it wrong? They employ specialist PR agencies, set up focus groups ‘to gauge public feeling’,  recruit dedicated teams to run their Twitter accounts and their Facebook pages, and yet the gaffes continue. You would have thought that after the recent furore over Alpro’s decision to use defensive ‘may contain nut’ warnings on their products other industry players would have been treading softly but, no – in go Tesco, in their hob-nailed boots, straight into the same quagmire….

Now as it happens – Tesco do have a problem in terms of their allergen labelling. In the good old, bad old days, they tried hard on the subject of contamination warnings, stating whether there were nuts (for example) in the recipes, whether the product had been made in a factory where nuts were used and/or whether they could guarantee that the ingredients were nut free. This was far from a perfect system but many of us thought that it was useful information for the allergic consumer and allowed them to make a more informed choice. However, this was a Tesco labelling format and was not used by other manufacturers or other supermarkets – nor was there ever any chance of getting all of the UK food industry, let alone the whole of the EU food industry, to agree on some similar format.

Therefore, in their revision of the allergen labelling regulations, the good burghers of Brussels (sorry…. EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority) decided that, rather than allowing such advice to proliferate and thereby confuse consumers, they should aim for simplicity and ban the lot! They, of course, have in mind their looming ‘action levels’. These are the result of ten years of Europe-wide research which is going, they hope, to allow them to set ‘thresholds’ (how much an allergic person can consume of their allergen without having a reaction) for most major allergens including nuts. At that point ‘may contain’ warnings become irrelevant as each food can be tested and, if it logs in a below the level it is safe, and if it does not, it is not safe. But we do not yet have these ‘action levels’ – and realistically we are not likely to have them as a usable tool for another five years. So for now, by banning all attempts to assess the level of contamination risk in the manufacture of a food product, EFSA have put us back ten years to the point where the only option a manufacturer has, if there is a genuine risk of nut (dairy, sesame, gluten etc etc) contamination, is to add a ‘may contain’ warning.

Of course, the crucial word here is ‘genuine’ but the Brussels authorities give no guidance on what a genuine risk may be. The Food Standards Agency does – a very reasonable requirement that there should be a ‘demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contamination’ to trigger a ‘may contain’ warning – but this is only guidance. Sadly, ignorance about allergies and manufacturing processes, and legal departments fearful of being sued if a customer has a reaction, all too often trigger a far wider use of the warnings than are justified – such as the ‘may contain nuts’ warnings on orange juice, ham, baked beans and yogurt flagged up by irate Tweeters. And these were all on Tesco products.

So, while Tesco are to be sympathised with in that their attempts to clarify allergen risk for their customers have now been banned, that is no excuse for not doing their homework in assessing each product for a ‘demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contamination’  before slapping a ‘may contain nuts’ warning on it.

I was moreover somewhat shocked by the ‘allergy advice’ on the Tesco site, flagged up by Food Allergy and Intolerance Ink in his post. While not actually misleading it was imprecise and failed to give any genuine help or advice to those suffering from a reaction to food beyond the stock ‘it is essential that you consult a health professional to obtain the correct guidance’. For a company that does try hard to produce a good range of options for their food allergic/intolerant and coeliac customers, this is more than disappointing.

However…. Back to my original point. Given all of this background information, how did Tesco manage to handle the latest brouhaha so badly? Any food company that has anything to do with allergy has heard about the Alpro fiasco and must know that the allergic community are well informed, articulate and will fight fiercely to protect their own or their children’s rights. So, as soon as rumours started to spread on Twitter/Facebook that Tesco were slapping may contain nuts warnings onto all their products, why was not a senior executive who could at least speak English drafted in to handle the situation? Instead, ‘Danny from Customer Care’ posted:

‘Myself and my colleagues have stated through this post that we have now started to put ‘may contain nuts’ on all labels, due to the labelling laws changing at the end of this year. This will be happening to all products, not just those in  our stores, but across all food products that are labelled.

I am sorry that you feel that this is the same answer you are getting from all of us here at Tesco Facebook. However this is the answer to why we have placed this on our labels.’

OK, call me a pompous pedant (and yes, I have been known to go through a whole press release from some random agency  with a red pencil and return it with a note to say that I will read it once they write it properly…) but….

This post was inaccurate, ill informed, unhelpful and appallingly written. Hardly surprisingly, it merely sparked further fury among the allergic community. Eventually Tesco got a grip and first ‘Daniel’ (Danny trying to sound more authoritative?) and finally ‘Stuart’ added posts during the day explaining what I have already explained above. But why wasn’t Stuart there to explain it from the start?…

And please, before their stock sinks even lower among the allergic community, could Tesco make a proper allergy risk assessment for each product before adding a ‘may contain’ warning….

Post Script – 18th April

Nick Clowes, the FreeFrom brand manager at Tesco to whom I had sent a copy of this blog, emailed me to say that they had, in fact, now updated the ‘allergy advice’ on the Real Food site. Having had a quick look, it certainly is greatly improved and much more helpful – although I still find the ‘milk intolerance’ section confusing if not actually inaccurate.

I think it would have been more helpful to class milk intolerance (an inability to successfully metabolise/digest milk products, usually cow’s milk)  and lactose intolerance (a failure to make enough of the enzyme lactase to properly digest the lactose sugar present in all animal milks) separately as they are separate conditions.

The Cheapside Horde

salamanderThe wonderful thing about living in a city which has been a city  for thousands of years is that, every time you dig seriously in your garden, there is just a chance that you might turn up anything from a Roman coin to a broken Victorian teacup. Not that if you live out in Hampstead the chances are very high – but, if you happen to live right in the City of London, the odds go up exponentially!

Indeed, City of London archeologists are the bane of developers’ lives as, so rich in treasure is the dirt beneath the city’s streets that almost every new build gets delayed at some point while archeologists sift through its foundations for precious evidence of the everyday lives of previous generations.

Grape-pendantMost such finds are interesting but not, to most of us, earth shattering. Not so the Cheapside Horde – a truly extraordinary collection of 17th century jewellery which emerged just over a hundred years ago when a builder demolishing a house in Cheapside, just behind St Paul’s cathedral, drove his pickaxe into a rotting wooden box buried in the cellar floor.  Inside was a veritable treasure trove of nearly 500 pieces of jewellery made of gold, enamel and precious stones from around the world.

The builder and his mates, understandably, stuffed what they could into their pockets and made straight for a man known as Stoney Jack. Stoney Jack was well known for hanging around building sites and picking up anything that he found lying around and thought was of interest. However, despite appearances, he was not just the local fence. Not only was he the respectable owner of an antique shop in Wandsworth but he was head of acquisitions for the brand new London Museum which had also opened in 1912. And so he acquired! In fact, with the exception a few pieces which went to the British Museum and one chain which went to the V&A, he acquired the lot for his London Museum.

emerald-watchAnd what a truly amazing lot it is. You really do not know what to wonder at most – the quite extraordinary workmanship, the incredible collection of gemstones, the imagination of the jewellers, or the exquisite size of the pieces. The salamander at the top of the page, for example (you may have seen him featured on hoardings and in advertisements for the exhibition) is actually little bigger than my thumb nail!!! The emerald grapes are only half the size they are in the picture. And as for the emerald watch – set in a whole Colombian emerald… Yes, it too is even smaller than the picture.

I know I only have pictures of emeralds here but there are also rubies galore, amethysts, sapphires, pearls and a host of other precious and semi precious stones – not to mention endless chains of tiny enamel flowers set in gold, scent bottles, brooches and rings.

Whose were these jewels? Nobody knows! Cheapside was the Bond Street of the 17th century, lined with jewellers and goldsmiths so the cellar where the horde was found could easily have been the cellar of a jeweller’s shop. We do know that they were buried after 1640 as, in the horde, is a red seal carved with the arms of Viscount Stafford – the one and only Viscount Stafford, who was only created viscount in 1640. And it must also have been hidden under the cellar before the Great Fire of 1666 or the wooden box would not have survived. But why was it hidden? Well, the best guess is that it was hidden by the jeweller himself during the Puritan interregnum when luxuries such as jewellery were seen as deeply sinful. No doubt he hoped that Puritanism would pass (as indeed it did) and that he would be able to retrieve his goods – but he never did….

If you want to see these amazing treasures for yourself – you still have three weeks to do so as the exhibition closes on the 27th April. But be warned, it is very popular, so if you want to actually see the pieces, get yourself there as the museum opens at 10am.

Check in to the Museum of London here to book tickets.