Fake News, Fake Food: Clarifying the Obscurity of Origin

A day does not pass without the mention of ‘fake news’ either as a shaming accusation or a mockingly sarcastic witticism. As we look deeper into the ‘fake news phenomenon’, we see that the public world is littered with bias and embellishment. Although the media itself has shone a negative light upon the obfuscating nature of ‘alternative facts’, there could ultimately be a positive outcome to the whole saga.

As people come to understand that all reported information has some form of bias, they may start to digest their news from numerous sources, forming their own views about whom to trust for certain ‘facts’. Similarly, people are beginning to question where their food and drink products come from; making the personal choice as to who to trust to provide specific goods. Are we becoming more aware and less happy about being deceived?

The European horse meat scandal of 2013 saw tests provide undesirable results to that flippant idea of an ‘I’m-not-sure-I-want-to-know-what’s-in-it’ quality of product. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published findings that of 27 beef burgers tested, 37% included horse DNA and 85% included pig DNA: needless to say, such ingredients were not listed on packaging. When the globalised trading system is impacted by events such as weather or even politics, prices rise suddenly, creating opportunities to substitute expensive ingredients for cheaper ones: some companies commit deliberate food fraud. Outrage obviously ensued and there were short-lived boycotts of certain brands and supermarkets, but one would hope a longer-lived scepticism of stated origin and ‘alternative facts’ on packaging was one positive consequence of the scandal.

Yet, we are still being deceived by supermarkets with recent evidence of some companies misleading consumers with fake farms branded on packaging. Is it time to look elsewhere for our produce and perhaps cut out the middle-man entirely by heading directly to the producer?

There is evidence that people are showing an increasing interest in the origin and quality of their food and drink. Consumer demand for locally sourced food has grown in recent years and has even thrived during the recession, when the opportunity to support the local and national economies drove the demand. A survey showed that 67% of customers would prefer to buy British. Currently we import far more than we export and, shockingly, UK farmers supplied just over half (52%) of the food we ate in 2015. Hopefully that desire to buy British and buy local will gradually push up that statistic to help producers and communities. There is still room for wider awareness of the benefits of buying local and understanding food origin.

Despite this positive growth of UK production and the local produce industry, many people are put off by the lack of the convenience they normally find from supermarket shopping. Indeed, one of the biggest arguments for shopping in large retail food chains is that they can provide imported goods all year round. How can a local producer do the same? We need to adapt our expectations and diets to a natural state where we use products from our local or even national environment, while exploring for the wider selection we have become used to.

Seeking and discovering local producers might seem like a lot of effort, so how do we make this easier? Fortunately, companies exist to help source and contact farmers for the produce you desire. BatchSeed is currently setting up a network of national producers so that consumers can select and engage with the production of their goods. Producers increase their profit margins and consumers get the best prices for a superior quality of product. A customer can easily and happily know the exact origin of their food and drink and the processes used to get it to their kitchen.

Perhaps we are learning to regress from this idea that our time is too precious to source either our own produce or information more accurately. We are realising that it does not need to be a chore, but can become a hobby. Ultimately, savvy sourcing can make people more trusting and willing to listen to each other. Recently, founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was seen scare-mongering that we are turning away from globalisation and he fears it will make us become more insular; however, exporting and importing less and buying local is anything but blinkered. Understanding the origin of our food – as well as our news – creates and strengthens relationships, broadens interests and knowledge, and helps and heeds others.