Do We Know What We are Really Eating?

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the eating habits of human beings, in which I noted that ‘in a spectrum from the ant to the ox, and spanning all categories (human as well), sizes and shapes in between, there is no animal that is not consumed by human beings somewhere in the world. What determines which animal is consumed depends of course on many factors, among which those that come to mind are availability and means to procure within a given environment and habitat, personal tastes, mode of eating: raw or cooked, and therefore also cooking ingredients and gastronomic repertoire if any, and religious practices or cultural taboos. But from a biological point of view, there is no issue about eating any kind of animal – if your system can take it, that is.’

Food is what we need to live, as well as oxygen – which we obtain from the air we breathe – to transform the food we eat into the energy our body needs to carry out its various functions. But food, however, can also contain substances derived from chemicals, as well as microbes or related living things (for example prions that are responsible for mad cow disease) which are liable to produce harm, in the form of disease. Many of these are known, such as gastroenteritis caused by bacteria (principally the one known as E. coli) in contaminated food, especially if the conditions of handling and storage fall below set standards. Locally, in a number of cases of food poisoning, the mayonnaise used was found to contain E. coli.

As such, therefore, we have every reason and justification to take an active interest in all aspects about the items of food that we consume, from the ingredients of which they are made to the way that they are handled along the chain that begins in the farm – in the case of industrially produced food, which alas nowadays means most of the food we consume – and ends at our table. Parents in particular have a special responsibility vis-à-vis their children who are, fortunately or unfortunately, subjected to heavy peer pressure and the marketing tactics of the corporate world. Not all of it is necessarily ill-intentioned, but one has to be vigilant, especially as regards growing children.

We are creatures of habit, and good habits inculcated early in life have a better chance of catching on than if we try to impose them later on when the children are older. Children who are fed on high salt or sugar foods will naturally tend to prefer them later on in their life, and are likely to pass this taste down the line to their families. So what more can we say but ‘be careful with what you give your children to eat.’ And we are failing our children if we do not take care to groom their eating habits at a tender age. When they reach the age of reason, they will then have the choice to make their own decisions, which have a better chance of being the proper ones if they have been nudged in the right direction from the very beginning.

What led me to reflect further about the food issue is a headline I read in the British press a couple of days ago. It read, ‘Coming to your local supermarket soon: Chicken à la maggots.’ The writer started his article by imagining a ‘menu-boast’ that could appear on a packet in a supermarket in a foreseeable future, and that would read as follows: ‘Our chicken, pork and fish dishes are fed only the finest protein-rich maggots that have been reared on a diet of cow and pig excrement, washed down with a wee dram of whisky.’

The point is that the writer is not joking, because, ‘For some, this kind of menu-boast would reflect the perfect scientific solution to the growing problems of rising waste and a soaring population.’ It is one kind of solution being seriously worked on by scientists in collaboration with other stakeholders, with the world facing the prospect of needing to feed an extra three billion mouths by 2050. But the demarche of the interested parties begins with a regional imperative, as stated in the article, ‘In an effort to satisfy the ever-expanding desire for meat, the EU is planning to rear flies on an industrial scale by feeding them on cow, pig and chicken excrement and using their protein-rich maggots for animal feed. As a result, a trial is under way to determine the feasibility of mass producing fly maggots, or larvae, that could take the place of widely demanded soya beans in high-protein feeds for pigs, chicken and fish.’

Further, ‘The move will utilise the growing mountains of animal and vegetable waste produced by agricultural expansion, as well as the “substrate” left from making alcohol, especially whisky.’ Hence the reference to whisky in the imaginary menu-boast. The rationale is that flies ‘might be a nuisance in the house but the good thing about flies is that they will live on anything and grow very fast.’ As noted by Georg Melzer, partner at Eutema Technology in Austria, who is involved in the project, ‘Every student has had them growing in the trash can at some point.’ The humble and always unwelcome house fly, or Musca domestica, is thus being seen as having the potential to become a cost-effective source of protein for animal feed.

It may also be noted that ‘It is currently illegal to sell meat reared on animal feed containing maggots – although the practice is allowed if the produce is for personal use,’ and that ‘The authorities turn a blind eye to free-range chickens chomping on the odd maggot, but the larvae become a problem when mixed in with animal feed.’ And therefore, ‘As a result, advocates of maggot-based animal feeds are talking to the EU about changing the law as an early part of a lobbying campaign that will gather considerable momentum if the three-year project concludes that the practice is feasible on a wide scale.’

One might remember the ‘mad cow’ scandal that broke out in 1989. Another article in the British press (in April) underlined that ‘People are no longer in danger of getting vCJD from eating British beef, after ministers ordered the slaughter of millions of cows when the “mad cow” disease scandal broke in 1989.’ However, as a result of certain studies carried out recently, ‘Government experts believe there is still a risk of people contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) through blood transfusions, as about 30,000 Britons are likely to be carrying the brain-wasting illness in a dormant form — double the previous estimate.’

It remains to be seen what the maggots of Musca domestica may pass on to the chickens that feed on them…

* Published in print edition on 31 May 2013

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