Food takes on an ethical flavour

The menu, ambience, location, the chef’s reputation and price influence the choice of restaurant for diners, who are more concerned that the food is well prepared than whether it’s also well bred.

Food activist Lorraine Jenks urges diners to ask if the beef comes from a cow that had a long life in a pasture, if the chicken clucked freely in the open air and whether the corn was doused with pesticides or was grown from genetically modified seed.

Because people don’t ask, Frankenfood is becoming more prevalent as large agricultural firms muscle out small farmers and artisanal food producers. In retaliation, "conscious consumption" is becoming an international trend.

"You can eat what you like, but don’t mess with my planet and don’t torture our animals," says Jenks. "It’s about animal welfare, biodiversity and the fair treatment of growers and producers. It’s about compassion and responsibility and our fight against the industrialisation of food."

Jenks recently staged SA’s first sustainable and ethical food and catering workshop during which speakers covered aspects of the food industry from beef to fish, corn to coffee. The attendees talked to exhibitors displaying artisanal produce including meats, cheese, preserves and bread.

For lunch, two plates of food were served: grass-fed beef with organic vegetables and factory-farmed beef with supermarket veggies. The organic veggies tasted far superior and were cheaper too, at R640 for the conference quantity compared with R804 for the supermarket produce.

The grass-fed version of the beef smelt vastly superior, although the taste comparison varied, depending on the part of the joint.

The grass-fed joint weighed 8.7kg raw and 6.9kg after cooking — a loss of 21%. The factory-farmed joint weighed 9.6km raw but only 5.3kg after cooking, losing 45% as its water content evaporated. That more than compensated for the price of R111/kg for the grass-fed beef and R84/kg for the more commercial beef.

Jenks grew up on a farm and has seen the food industry change over the decades. Now cows are stuffed with growth hormones and antibiotics, chickens are often fed dead chickens and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides.

"You are what you eat, but you are also what your food eats," she says.

Jenks is in the business of sourcing goods and services for hotels and event organisers through her website, Hotelstuff, and a sister website, Greenstuff that offers greener alternatives. Hoteliers and event organisers know how to make venues ecofriendly, but people are now demanding green catering and chefs don’t know what to do, she says.

One of her major concerns is how large US companies are buying up land in Africa to mass-produce just one crop, such as mealies. They’re not being produced for food, but for biofuel, and this colonisation pushes out farmers who know the land and the indigenous crops.

"It’s against food security because Africa could actually feed itself if they let small rural farms get on with it, but they can’t because of politics and because of these huge monoculture farms," she says.

Butcher Caroline McCann, of Braeside Meat Market in Johannesburg, says about 85% of the meat sold in SA comes from "feedlots" or intensive farming operations with animals fed on grain doctored to optimise their growth. These farms also manipulate the gene pool to produce animals that grow very large very quickly.

"That doesn’t sound like farming, it sounds like the chemical experimentation of big businesses," McCann says.

She says that before she started selling free-range and grass-fed meat, "I couldn’t seem to break that barrier of having a product that tasted, smelt and acted differently in the pan."

Then she visited the UK, where all the butchers she admired could tell her about the farms they bought from and how the cattle were fed on grass and rye. Back in SA, one well-known supplier told her she shouldn’t worry what cows ate because they had 12 animal scientists to figure it out. McCann protested that it doesn’t take 12 scientists to know that cows should be eating grass, not hormones.

She believes that food is a big contributor to modern illnesses. Many people start buying from her butchery after having been diagnosed with cancer or early stage diabetes.

McCann ridicules euphemistic labels used to make food sound better, such as "naturally", "country" or "organically packaged" — which could mean poor meat, nicely presented in recycled containers, she jokes.

Watch out for labels that say, "Grass-fed, grain-finished", she warns, as the grain contains a cocktail of antibiotics and hormones.

She adds that SA’s legislation is easily manipulated and farmers are not required to stipulate which antibiotics or growth hormones they use. Members of the Slow Food Movement have held workshops with government officials to highlight how food is being doctored. "They have undertaken to pass legislation that will hold people accountable," she says.

Right now, however, it’s cheaper for giant food producers to lie about the content and pump money into fighting negative publicity than it is to improve the quality.