Spring in north London

Cherry blossom

Readers who follow my garden pages will already have seen spring start to burst in our garden but blossom has been following blossom in such profusion over the last few weeks that it seemed criminal not to share them more widely. So…

CamelliaPictured above the the cherry tree in the front garden – a glorious site for anything from a day to two weeks, depending on the winds. This year, I am delighted to say, it was in full bloom for about ten days – now well over. And sheltering beneath it  is a magnificent once-white camellia. I say once white as, for the first 20 years of its life (it is now about 30 years old), it was all white but over the last ten years it has started to produce first pink flashes on the white flowers, then pink flowers and now, as you can see, the occasional bright red sport!

In the back garden, meanwhile, our Ice Folly tick (courtesy of my good friend Prudence Nuesink of Body Talk) was in full bloom for about a month.

Ice FolliesThe daffs have now also finished but their place has been taken by the bluebells, just coming into full flower here.


As you can see, Tawny Pipit, our lovely wire foal, has moved over to take full advantage of the new grass around their base….

WisteriaMeanwhile, the wisteria which had laid dormant since long before we came here in the late 1970s only to leap into life, for no apparent reason, a couple of years ago, has wound its way through the pyracantha, the elder, the may tree and the acer and is also bursting into flower.

Over on the other side of the garden though, things are not so good. The whitebeam, is doing really well, although I think its lower branches need a bit of trimming, and the clematis montana is, amazingly, holding its own against the ivy, but my lovely golden ash tree is not looking at all well.

Whitebeam, ash and clematisI was concerned last autumn as it had great  sheaves of what looked like seed pods which I did not remember seeing in previous years. I did examine them carefully but they genuinely looked like seed pods rather than signs of the dreaded ‘die back’. But now it only seems to be putting out a few feathery leaves at the top of the branches – and I never remember it doing that before… So, immediately after Easter, I think it is a call to the tree man!

apple treeWeeping pear treeMore encouragingly, the little apple tree that I planted two years ago is doing just fine. And, I have just replaced the weeping pear tree that  was forced to give way to a football pitch fifteen years ago when my son was in his early teens! It does not look much just yet, but give it a year or two…

I am also making a third attempt on an acacia, the glorious golden robinia frisia. I have lost two to the wet and the north London clay over the last 20 years but inspired by my good friend Barbara Burgess (of D & D Chocolates) I am now going to plant it in a well drained tub in the hopes that its roots will not get waterlogged even if it does not grow to its full height.

However, more on that in a month or two. Along with updates on the roses and clematis growing up the mirror, the irises, delphiniums (assuming the slugs don’t get there first), the hostas in the ‘pondette’ and the pendulous begonias which have given us such a magnificent display in the hanging baskets over the last few years – and more…  But, just before I go…

In order to make way for the new weeping pear (although I realise that at its current size this may seem unnecessary…) I took down a very elderly and scraggly laburnum. It had got overtaken by a honeysuckle which, if it flowered at all, did so very inconspicuously at the very top of the tree and certainly did nothing to perfume the garden!  One of my less successful plantings.  Both definitely in need of recycling… However, I did rescue a few of the smaller branches of the laburnum as it came down and they did, for a week, make for a rather lovely flower arrangement.

Laburnum and daffodils

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.