Tuesday 19 February 2013

Horsemeat in the food chain: seriously, why the long face?

In my day job, I have done virtually nothing else for a full month now apart from answering questions about horsemeat.

Those who have knowingly eaten it assure me that horsemeat is delicious but, like most English people, I always pass those boucheries chevalines in Paris with a shudder of distaste. Which is entirely illogical, given that I don’t even like horses.

Many other columnists have lined up to opine that we are in the midst of a huge crisis caused by our addiction to cheap food, fostered by those evil supermarkets who are constantly driving down standards and screwing their suppliers. The answer, clearly, is to pay more, eat better and support your friendly, local butcher and farmer.

Even though the roof is kept over my head by Britain’s leading high street retailer of frozen food, I am personally delighted that good independent butchers have enjoyed a boost to their trade as a result of all this nonsense.

But please be assured that it is 99.99% nonsense, and that the problem is not so much processed food as manufactured hysteria. Yes, a small handful of rogues have evidently been passing off horsemeat as beef to some unsuspecting customers. But, as the food safety specialists never tire of explaining, this won’t actually do you any harm.

But what, scream the hysterics, if the horses had been treated with the veterinary painkiller called bute? Yes, the Government’s chief medical officer wearily explained, that might indeed stand an outside chance of making you ill if you ate 500 or 600 bute-laced horse burgers every day. Not that any trace of bute has been found in any UK products tested to date.

My client – Iceland Foods, since you ask – withdrew and destroyed a couple of batches of their burgers after the Food Safety Authority in Ireland detected small traces of horse DNA, amounting to one tenth of one per cent of the product. That particular test was not accredited for use in the UK and samples from the same batches were immediately sent to two independent laboratories for confirmation. No trace of horse DNA could be found.

All Iceland’s other beef products have now been tested and similarly proved to contain no rogue horse or pig meat. So they said so. Cue howls of protest that the company is not grovelling apologetically for something it has not done.

It’s a rum food crisis in which no one has died or, so far as we know, even been made ever so slightly poorly. As catastrophes go, it’s the equivalent of the Titanic’s head chef running out of lemon juice for the mousseline sauce to accompany the poached salmon in the first class dining room.

Meanwhile a Titanic-sized death toll has been exacted by mismanagement of the NHS in mid-Staffordshire and yet that, bizarrely, is the story that has proved pretty much a one day wonder.

I am old enough to remember what food shopping was like before the big supermarkets became dominant and the important truth is that it was rubbish.

There has been a revolution in the variety, quality, freshness and value for money of the food available to us in my lifetime that has been driven by supermarkets and is hugely advantageous to us all.

Yes, I also buy from independent shops and farmers’ markets because I am lucky enough to be able to afford to do so, but I have no hesitation in doing the bulk of my shopping in supermarkets – including Iceland – and nor should anyone else.

If you’re going to get hung up on microscopic quantities of DNA, brace yourself for next week’s shock disclosure that your raspberry yogurt almost certainly contains a trace of banana.

Please also remember that your local butcher’s handmade burgers stand every chance of containing minuscule traces of other animals’ DNA. And, unless he washes his hands with the obsessive dedication of a serial killer who has successfully evaded justice, quite possibly human DNA too.

I really hope that some enterprising tabloid does run a test for that, so that we may look forward to the next stage of the crisis: Britain rocked by revelations of rampant cannibalism among the middle classes.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Nothing is inevitable but death - certainly not wind farms

I am sure my late mother was blissfully unaware that she was quoting Jane Austen when she regularly observed that “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

Substitute “passions” for “pleasures” and the gulf in understanding yawns wider still.

I am a strong opponent of “ever closer union” in Europe and look forward to the promised “in out” referendum, if it ever happens, but polls consistently suggest that the great mass of my fellow citizens do not care all that much either way (though they should).

On the Horsegate food contamination scandal, media vox pops certainly found some consumers who were beside themselves with rage at the thought of unwittingly munching Dobbin in their burgers or lasagne, but many more received the news with a resigned shrug.

Another horse joke, courtesy of the Huffington Post

Among other recent burning issues, I have not written about gay marriage because I really could not care less one way or the other. Nor do I regard it as a “scandal” that people who are lucky enough to own a house should have to sell it to fund their care home bills, so long as their partner is not rendered homeless in the process.

While Scottish independence, though a lousy idea in principle, would have the great advantage of taking whingeing Salmonds, Sturgeons and other assorted fishes with chips on their shoulders out of our newspapers for good.

Which brings me, inevitably, to the one issue about which I do feel pretty passionate at the moment: the despoliation of the matchless Northumberland countryside by the crazy wind energy subsidy scam (this century’s answer to the last one’s plague of subsidised conifer plantations – though at least we will never run short of wooden pit props for our thriving deep mining industry).

Follions as it would really look (compare the picture accompanying the planning application)

Last week’s column on the planned Follions Folly attracted a small handful of passionate e-mails of support, one castigating me for failing to appreciate the beauty of wind turbines, and another pointing out that they are less ghastly than nuclear power plants.

Well, up to a point, Lady Copper, though at least nuclear can produce large amounts of electricity consistently if not particularly economically, rather than relatively small amounts when the wind blows at the right sort of speed.

And from the great mass of the public, I suspect, total indifference. Fuelled by the sense that covering much of the countryside with gigantic turbines is “inevitable”, like German victory in World War II or the triumph of communism, and “the future”. Which is interesting considering that they combine the mediaeval technology of the windmill with Faraday’s cutting edge invention of 1831, the dynamo.

In my experience nothing is inevitable apart from death (we all know now that taxes are pretty much optional if you are rich enough to pay for the best advice). So I shall keep banging the drum for the total madness of wrecking a peculiarly beautiful bit of countryside, designated as of High Landscape Value and right on the edge of the National Park, just to put a bit of extra cash in someone’s pocket for the next 25 years.

The last week has seen the creation of a website - http://www.fightfollionswindfarm.co.uk - and Facebook page, which both feature a rather more realistic photomontage of the development than the one accompanying the planning application, plus some interesting height comparisons with existing turbines and buildings. Do please take a look and “like” the Facebook page if you feel so minded.

A public meeting has also been arranged at Whittingham Village Hall at 7.30pm on Friday for everyone concerned about the issue. Curiously, the applicants’ agents have declined an invitation to come along and explain why the turbine would be such a good thing for us all. Suggesting either total confidence that they are going to get their way regardless of what the yokels think, or a contempt for the views of the local community that almost beggars belief. Perhaps, indeed, a bit of both.

In a county that has already more than done its bit to help meet renewable energy targets, there can only be one sane response to opportunistic proposals for large turbines in beautiful, sensitive and remote locations. Just say no. Please.
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The subsidy parasites have my paradise firmly in their sights

My main creative endeavour at present is writing some new lyrics for Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi”, under the working title of “Huge White Turbine”.

Her line “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot” has been running through my head ever since I learnt on Friday that the wind power industry has got my own small Northumberland parish of Callaly in its sights.

We have kept it a selfish little secret up to now, I admit, but Callaly is the nearest thing I have ever found to an earthly paradise. Indeed, I have wasted years trying to adapt the lyrics of “Camelot” to reflect my belief that there's simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in … well, you see my challenge.

At the heart of its appeal is the ravishing unspoilt beauty of the countryside. The first time I saw the view of the Cheviots from what was to become my house it literally took my breath away.

A few days later, driving along the single track road from Trewhitt Hall to Yetlington, Elgar’s Nimrod blasting out of the car stereo, I formed the unshakeable conviction that this was the very best England (and, therefore, by extension, the world) had to offer.

Now, not far from this very road, there falls the colossal, flickering shadow of a proposed wind turbine. But, not to worry, it’s only a “medium sized” single machine, not a “commercial” farm of behemoths.

“Medium sized” in this context means 78m or, in English, 256ft tall. To put it another way, around four times the height of the Angel of the North. Its installation, according to the consultants promoting it, will “allow the adjacent farm business to operate in a more environmentally and financially sustainable manner”.

Well, hurrah for that. No one could surely begrudge a poor farmer whacking up a modest windmill in his farmyard to help light his sheep shed when the wind is blowing at the right speed. But you don’t need a 78m turbine in open countryside to do that.

In reality, this is a moneymaking development designed to harvest the rich subsidies available for “renewable energy” at the expense of every electricity consumer in the country.

I suppose we should be grateful that the new generation of Border reivers descend upon us with slick Powerpoint presentations rather than broadswords, but what really sticks in my gullet is the pretence that they aren’t in this for the loot, but to do us all a favour.

Indeed, the planning application for the Follions Folly (my name, not theirs), which may be savoured on the Northumberland County Council planning website, ref. 12/03857/RENE , notes that they have not bothered to consult the local community before submitting their proposal because “the production of renewable energy is considered an overriding benefit to the wider area.”

Indeed, so eager were they to avoid consultation or scrutiny that they slid their planning application in on the Friday before Christmas with the result that it took us dozy yokels a full six weeks even to spot it. Another fortnight and it would have been too late to object and so very easy to claim: “See, they all love it!”

Not so fast, my friends. It simply cannot be right for large industrial turbines to be erected in remote and beautiful locations on the fringes of the National Park. I say this not in a spirit of Nimbyism but because the unspoilt landscape of Northumberland is simply the greatest asset the county possesses, and conniving in its wilful desecration is the biggest mistake this generation could possibly make.

Reading the planning application, I kept hearing the voice of Mrs Doyle urging Father Ted, “Go on, go on, go on. It’s a micro turbine!”

"Sure, Father, you won't even notice it!"

But it’s not. And if this Folly slips through the planning net, experience elsewhere in the county suggests that the vultures will be back for more.

I will be keeping some of Joni’s words in my new song: “Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.”

Though I have my fingers crossed that, in this instance, paradise may yet be saved. 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Since this column was written, I have been informed by my local county councillor that the deadline for public consultation on the proposed Follions wind turbine has been extended until THURSDAY, 7 MARCH and that a case officer has been allocated to deal with the application. Objections (or indeed letters of support) may be sent to him at Joe.Nugent@northumberland.gov.uk or by letter to:

Joe Nugent
Senior Planner
Northumberland County Council
County Hall
NE61 2EF

There is a special meeting of the Whittingham, Callaly and Alnham parish council to discuss the proposal at Whittingham Village Hall at 7.30pm on FRIDAY, 15 FEBRUARY, which residents of these and neighbouring parishes are invited to attend.

Good luck!