Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate
Felicity Lawrence
(Penguin Books, London: 2004)

READ: May-June 2004

I stumbled across this book in my library's catalogue whilst searching for something else food-related for a client. Intrigued, I requested it be sent to me, and it was quite a fascinating read.

Felicity Lawrence is an investigative reporter for The Guardian in London, England, and she has been writing on food-related topics (and other things, too, undoubtedly) for over 20 years. This book focuses on the food industry in Britain*, but I have no reason to believe that things are substantially different or better in Canada and the U.S. I'm willing to bet that while things may differ in the details, the larger brushstrokes of our food distribution chains are similar.

From the back cover (because sometimes they just say it better):

In a series of undercover investigations tracking some of the most popular foods we eat at home, Felicity Lawrence travels from farms and factories to packhouses and lorry depots around the world. She discovers why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a third of apples are thrown away, why bread is full of water and air. And she shows how obesity, the plight of migrant workers, motorways clogged with juggernauts, ravaged fields in Europe and starving farmers in Africa are all connected to a handful of retailers and food manufacturers who exert unprecedented control over what we eat and where we buy it.

This book is well-written and fascinating. Lawrence isn't preachy. She isn't trying to get us to switch to all-vegetarianism or all-organics or all-local. Rather, in a series of exposés (Chicken / Salad / Beans / Bread / Apples and Bananas / Coffee and Prawns / The Ready Meal), she is simply trying to make us more aware. She eats meat, and doesn't shun (all) processed food. She even sometimes buys bananas. However, she wants to make us more aware of where our food comes from, and what is done in the system to make food as cheap and abundant as it is today (at least in the Western world). Her general philosophy is: As much as possible, buy local, seasonal, and direct. Sounds like fine advice to me.

The book is an eye-opener. Sure, I've been hearing for years about the appalling conditions in which many animals destined for slaughter are raised (chickens in tiny cages where they can't even turn around, etc.). Lawrence mentions these things, but doesn't dwell on them. Rather, she walks us through the steps in production of some of the most basic things. Like salad: there are an unbelievable number of steps involved in getting today's ready-cut, pre-washed bags of salad to the grocery store. And if you want a mini-lesson on the effects of globalization, read her chapter on Coffee and Prawns. You'll suddenly have a much better understanding of why so many countries can't afford to feed their own people.

A rather timely read, as the headlines these days are full of dire predictions for the food supply in the not-so-far-off future, and we keep hearing about the rise of food prices despite any direct evidence of that here. This book helps me understand this rising debate, and I am looking forward to reading more on the subject.

* Perhaps in some ways it would be more accurate to say "the food industry not in Britain".

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