Saturday, June 25, 2011

Future Food

In the Travel and Indulgence section of the Weekend Australian, June 25-26, 2011, Kendal Hill cites a half dozen or so 'world's leading chefs at the recent S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants in London' on 'the next big trends' in food, meaning here only restaurant food, and indeed, given those he spoke to, only the haute cuisine end of the restaurant spectrum.

I have to say I found their views underwhelming, gratingly cliche and out of touch. They all talk of turning to food that is local [though what they mean by this means anything from locally sourced to a constructed national cuisine] and natural, in opposition apparently to molecular. I wonder as I read this where and with whom these chefs have been eating for the past dozen and more years that they talk as if it is they who are discovering the value of these and will now proceed to instruct us in how this will be achieved, all the while of course charging us premium dollars.

What, for example am I to make of the following comment from Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma restaurant, the current 'best chef in the world' according to the organisers of the event. In response to the question where is food heading he said ;In our region it's heading towards more thorough exploration of ourselves. Of our soil, of our waters, of our gastronomic heritage. A deeper understanding of why it is we eat as we do; that cooking is a way to explore the world; that food is something that should be integral, not like some weird alter ego to you that you feel awkward about.'

Copenhagen's a fair way north of Italy but I can't believe that the discussions about regionalism, sustainability, and the cultural meanings of food  -sustenance, conviviality, hospitality, it's capacity for stimulating cross-cultural understanding and so on  - kick-started by the Slow Food movement a dozen years ago has not been part of the food culture of Denmark for at least as long. Nor can I believe that there are many people sitting down to their daily meals worldwide who 'feel awkward' about their food. The degree of dissociation apparent in these statements is staggering.

As it is in the proposal by Brett Graham of The Ledbury in London that  there will be a 'real shift towards tasting menus'. I don't see your average punter being happy about coughing up the $250 or thereabouts that Tony Bilson is now apparently charging for his new degustation menu when they want a night out of fine dining.

But then I reflect that these are views from kitchens where feeding has been stripped of most of its cultural meanings and values and distressingly retains only its capacity for class distinction and self-aggrandisement.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Economic Necessity of Obesity

At TedX this year, Katherine Samaras, a senior staff specialist in endocrinology and metabolism at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney and group leader in Clinical Diabetes and Obesity at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, focused her 15 minutes on obesity. Much of what she said wouldn't be new to any of us foodographer [I just made that term up so those of us who write about food could use it when we wanted to come across all academicky], but she dropped a phrase that caught my attention and did set me thinking, which is what Ted X is supposed to do so hurrah for that.

One slide she flashed up was titled The Economic Necessity of Obesity which suggested provocatively that perhaps one of the reasons why governments are reluctant to legislate against or place restrictions on the advertising and availability of foods that are linked to obesity is that the food industry is too significant a contributor to the economy.

My first response was of course to go 'yeah, grrl, for it'. My second response was, hmmm, where are the figures that could back a contention that the food industry was vitally necessary to the Australian economy and further even if that were the case, where is the evidence to suggest that it is the obese potential end of the industry that carries the burden of pumping into the economy. So I googled 'how much does the food industry contribute to the Australian GDP' and was, to keep the food metaphors flowing, gob-smacked by just to what extent the industry is in fact a major part of the Australian economy. The following is from the Food Industry page of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [felicitously acronmyed as DFAT]

  • Food accounts for 46% of all the retail turnover in Australia.
  • Total retail spending on food and liquor in 2006-2007 was $106.6 billion, an increase of 8% on the previous year.
  • Around 191,400 people were employed in food and beverage manufacturing in 2007-2007.
  • Over 40% of food processing employment occurs in non-metropolitan areas.
  • The processed food and beverage industry is Australia's largest manufacturing industry with a turnover of more than $71.4 billion in 2005-06. Growth in the value of output has averaged around 2% a year over the past 10 years.
  • Australia's 50 largest food and beverage corporations produce almost three-quarters of the domestic industry's revenue.
  • Food exports reached a peak of $30.8 billion (2007-07 dollars) in 2001-02 and have been declining ever since because of drought and changes in demand from overseas markets.
I gleaned further fodder for my ruminations from the good folk at the NSW Food Industry Training Council  on the Food Industry page of their FoodHub wiki.

  • Food products, incorporating processed food and fresh horticultural produce makes up 19% of Australia's merchandise exports. [Though as per above this has been declining over the last years.]
  • Based on 2000-01 figures, the processed food industry alone contributed 2.2% to Australia's GDP.

Okay, so food business is big business in Australia, but it's still a leap to say the obesity is an economic necessity, I mean, not all of the food industry is about processing food that's going to make someone obese, is it?

Well, here's an interesting table from the DFAT site.

Sector                                                                     Turnover (2005-06, $millions)
Bakery products                                                       4 005
Beverage and malt manufacturing                             13 289
Dairy products                                                           9 991
Flour mill and cereal food manufacturing                     3 692
Fruit and vegetable processing                                   4 672
Meat and meat products                                          17 836
Oil and fat manufacturing                                            1 547
Seafood processing                                                   1 330
Sugar and confectionery manufacturing                       6 456
Other food manufacturing                                           8 554

Having just done some work for Cancer Council of NSW in which I became perhaps too familiar with their nutritional guidelines for cancer prevention, around 74% of the turnover is in sectors whose products if eaten incautiously are likely to lead to unhealthy body weight/ obesity and hence increased likelihood of cancers.

This is still not proof that crap food is an economic necessity, but it did give me food for (lean) thought.

You can hear the full talk from Katherine Samaras here.