Food origins are not straightforward | Sumfood

Posted in Flexitarian, Food Safety, Food Systems, Meat Eater on Jan 17, 2019

The US President serves up take-aways

In a much-publicised move, the President of the US served up fast food to a winning sports team. Putting aside the reason for the rather odd event (the image of gold candelabra being lit above silver platters stacked with boxes of burgers will endure for a long time), there were several points of concern from the event. Disclaimer: we are not talking politics.

Welcome to the Danger Zone

Starting with simple logistics. If the burgers were ordered, prepared, delivered, waited until the team arrived and then were ‘served’ it is likely that the warm beef patties were sitting well beyond the recommended safe period. Put another way, the US Department of Agriculture recommend that cooked hamburgers can be left at room temperature for up to two hours (less if the room temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 Celsius). Anything sitting around for more than that recommended amount of time should be discarded, as the USDA describe cooked food at room temperature is in the “Danger Zone”. Discarding food does not equate to feeding it to athletes.

Claiming the origin of food

While there is some confusion about the volume of burgers in question – was it 300 or 1000 – they were all reportedly representative of “American food”. According to CNN, President Trump said:

“If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff”

We beg to differ. While the US is the undisputed home of the burger (or burder), the companies providing the fast food included Burger King (owned by the Canadian holding company, Restaurant Brands) and the ingredients were not “all American”. This burgergate case provides a great opportunity to explore what we mean when we talk about the origin of food.

French fries might not be from… France

The “all American” spread included paper cups filled with French fries. Despite the name, it is likely that French fries did not originate in France; and while the story of how they came to be is a little controversial we know that they did not originate in the US. There is some evidence that French fries were created in Belgium in the 1600’s but the French are still laying claim to their provenance (and they did lend their name to the ubiquitous fries). Regardless, they are a food tradition that is not truly “all American”. While the McDonald’s US website carries stories of US based potato growers, it is likely that not all of the 19 ingredients in McDonalds fries are actually from the US. These ingredients include dextrose (for colour), sodium acid pyrophosphate (so that the potatoes don’t grey after freezing) and the four oils that they are partially cooked in before being shipped: soybean, hydrogenated soybean, canola and corn oil.

Global supply chains reduce transparency and increase risk

In an important paper on Food Defense, researcher Shaun Kennedy dissected a regular Big Mac, to map where the 100 odd ingredients came from. The answer was eye-opening. While it is not possible to know exactly where the ingredients in the burger you are eating are from (suppliers change, and supply relationships are confidential) Kennedy looked at just four ingredients in a normal Big Mac to provide an example of how truly global food supply chains are. His work illustrated how difficult it is to manage each individual supply chain for each individual ingredient (he went on to discuss what the implications of this complexity was in keeping food safe from terrorist or nefarious acts).

By way of example: in 2010 the US imported meat from 10 different countries; tomatoes come from 12 countries, wheat gluten from 17 and vinegar from 36 countries. Each country has its own regulations for the production and export of food products and each product is subject to its own supply chain. It is important to note that the quality and level of oversight vary considerably by country (as an example, consider the food safety systems of Peru, China, United Kingdom and Serbia; these countries all exported vinegar to the US).

Attaining ‘all American’ status for complex foods might not be that easy

Kennedy’s work illustrated that inherent weaknesses exist in our global supply chain; in this post we are using it to illustrate that even for the most common food product; a burger, it is highly unlikely that it is truly “all American”. That is, it is highly unlikely that all of the ingredients will have originated in the US. Increasingly, with complex food products (products that have multiple ingredients and processing) it is becoming more and more difficult to identify the origin of all ingredients (particularly those purchased on spot markets) and this makes them more and more vulnerable to substandard ingredients and unscrupulous traders.

Safe food and transparency

Back to the President and his fast food. Perhaps, while the origin of the food and the origin of the ingredients were not truly ‘all American’ the actual act of serving and eating burgers at a Presidential gathering is an ‘all American’ thing to do? It would be wrong of us to judge, but we are interested in safe food and transparency of supply chains and this provides an excellent opportunity to think about the claims we make about food, specifically, about the ownership of the origin of the recipe and the origin of the ingredients (And, for the record for any Australians reading, NZ did invent the pavlova and the flat white).

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