COLUMN: Your food is a matter of trust

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

James Waller-Davies on why it’s important to know who you buy your food from...

Chances are you know the name of your doctor, your children’s teachers, your solicitor if your use one regularly. But how many names do you know of the people who produce and prepare your food? The farmers and growers, the butchers, the bakers?

Far too many of the endless food scandals are a result of a breakdown of trust between ‘us’ the consumers and ‘them’ the producers. Trust is a two-way process and when we stop knowing who the other party is we give up our half of the trust bargain.

The recent horsemeat scandal is just one in a long list of nameless and often rogue producers not feeling under any obligation to the people who will be consuming the final product.

How do I know I didn’t eat any horsemeat? I know because my local Boston butcher is the same person who slaughters the animals which come from local farms he knows. I didn’t eat any because he didn’t secretly do in Dobbin and slip him into the stewing steak. I trust him. He trusts the farmer. It’s called traceability and it’s built on knowledge and trust.

Supermarkets spend big money on marketing campaigns designed to give an impression of a similar relationship with their customers. We’re lead to believe they’re self-contained marketplaces, with grocers, fishmongers, bakers and butchers, all giving us a friendly familiar smile like they know us. They don’t of course. They are an army of unwrappers and stackers. This is what happens when food becomes a brand, not a food.

Some supermarket food packaging has pictures of smiling farmers, green fields and a whole range of symbols all designed to give us a sense of connection with the food producer. Its purpose is to create the same sense of traceability you get from your local shopkeeper or market stall holder.

It’s all an imaginary balloon and if you want to burst it all you have to do is ask the person stacking the cold-counter about the farm, or the abattoir, or how the animal has been processed after slaughter. Ask the person at the fruit and veg aisle when the produce was picked, or advice on the best potato for roasting, and the expertise sold in the TV advert melts away.

Using local food producers and suppliers is one way we can readdress the trust balance with the people from whom we buy. It is also good household economics: you buy exactly what you need, not what you’re given. With recent reports suggesting almost one third of supermarket food is thrown away uneaten, the real cost of food is the cost on your plate, not the cost in your pocket. Our grandparents knew this and they cooked with thrift in mind: Sunday’s roast was Monday’s pie.

It we don’t wish to continue to be the victims of food scandals we have to do our bit too. It’s not all down to the producers, we have to put the onus of trust back on them and to do this we need to know them and they need to know us.

When it comes to food, we need to learn to trust people again, not just adverts.