The Price of Convenience

There’s horsemeat in the food chain and everyone’s scrambling round in a panic. Apparently it might have originated in Romania, where abattoirs were fulfilling an order placed from Cyprus, where a company was filling an order for a French company. In turn, they’d received an order from another French company for its factory in Luxembourg, which was supplying ready meals for sale in Britain by a Swedish company. Confused yet?

It’s a long time since I was a small lad, but back then my mother bought her groceries from the grocer, whose emporium was filled with sacks and barrels full of the most exquisite smells, with cheese and butter behind a dark wood counter. It was a scene that probably hadn’t changed much from Victorian times. For fruit and vegetables we went to the greengrocer (who also sold orange crates for sixpence; when dragged home they could be transformed into racing cars, aircraft, even spaceships – the only limit was my imagination). And when we wanted meat we went to the butcher. If it was mince – ground beef to Americans – that she desired, he ground it on the spot with a hand-turned machine. That meat came from fairly local farmers, probably from an abattoir in Leeds. The food chain wasn’t too long.

Back then, too, people brought their own bags when shopping, in the days before disposable plastic bags, those little items that have become so reviled recently in a return to…people supplying their own bags to help the environment. And the Monday wash? That went out on the line to dry. No tumble dryers. If you were lucky you had a twin tub machine.

The first local supermarket opened somewhere around 1963. Soon they grew into much larger beasts. I had a summer and Saturday job in one. They were a convenience, with everything in one place. But most people still preferred meat from the butcher and their fruit and veg from the greengrocer, bread from the baker…you get the idea.

You can’t stop progress, though, and it’s not all bad. Supermarkets have brought many good things, and convenience? Yes, handy indeed, and far better than going to the shops every day, especially for families where both parents work. Then 30 years of living in the US spoilt me, with massive supermarkets offering a staggering range of items.

But an outgrowth of all this idea of making everything convenient is a greater reliance on fast food and ready meals. With the growth of multinational companies supply all this – be it burgers, pizza, ready meals under umpteen different brands, we’ve lost our charge of the food chain. It controls us rather than the other way round. And where there’s a chain there’s always going to be a weak link.

There’s no turning the clock back and in many ways I wouldn’t want to. Growing up in a house where the only heat came from fireplaces and a back burner in the kitchen wasn’t romantic. In winter there’d be frost on the inside of my bedroom windows. The ashes had to be cleaned out of the grate in the living room first thing every morning (and it was my poor mother who ended up doing it).

But maybe we do need to look at things again. With bags and drying clothes, just as two examples, we’ve learnt that the old ways weren’t as backward as we believed them to be. While there’s nothing wrong with horsemeat itself (during rationing people queued to buy it and it’s common in many countries), it’s the integrity of the food that counts, knowing that we can believe what it says on the packet. Perhaps the price we’re paying for all this convenience is a little too high.