READY MEALS and the dawn of food-corporatism By Dirk Budka

Once upon a time, READY MEALS were an alternative exception, a substitute for a ’real meal’- used rarely when in a hurry. READY MEALS were deemed unhealthy.

Then manufacturers discovered the profitability and the mighty supermarket chains discovered how easy it is to stock and to manage READY MEALS compared to fresh food.

Since then, the ready meal has undergone a change of image. It is not deemed unhealthy any more, but a healthy option, and it is just a question of time when fresh food has the image of being unhealthy. The latest campaigns of the food industry are focusing on telling the customer how healthy their products are rather than how convenient.

Many food pathogens are far more resistant to long-standing food-processing and storage techniques than expected. This causes alarm within the food industry, regulatory authorities and with scientists. Bacteria and their products like endotoxins, enterotoxins and biogenic amines may directly or indirectly cause chronic diseases in humans or function as environmental triggers of diseases. This complex interaction between the microbe or its product and the human immune system can lead to autoimmune reactions and tissue damage in organs.

Microbial activity might be one reason for the rapid increase in food allergies and food intolerances. The increase in gastrointestinal diseases and digestive disorders is also a result of the activity of the microbe or its products which may disrupt intestinal integrity followed by the entry of substances or disruption of nutrient transport, which may lead to nutritional and immunologic deficits. Scientists and medical practitioners still do not know the origin of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS-RS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome Related Symptoms). And there are more diseases which are still more or less not fully understand but are connected with the change of the food we eat: the Histamine Intolerance, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Candida, Dysbiosis and other digestive disorders. There is a knowledge gap in relation to food-borne diseases… and this gap might be in the interest of the food manufacturing and distribution industry. Why? New regulations, hastily put together by local authorities, food regulatory authorities like the FDA or FSA (in the UK), or the EU, are often bureaucratic, or already out of date, because of the ability of microbes to adapt rapidly to new environments.

The mighty food industry will always fight new health and safety regulations, because new regulations mean loss of profits. Food production and distribution practices have to keep pace with consumer demand and international competition.

The highest profitability is in READY MEALS. Consumers are buying ready meals, which are offered to us under many different names: home meal replacement, convenience food, ready meals, ready-to-eat meals, sous-vide meals, pre-packed sandwiches/wraps/salads, ready-to-reheat meals, added-value food products… you name it.

Ready meals represent the ultimate convenience food and require no preparation, which seems to be important when looking at our working and family patterns. But: new pathogens are emerging and long-known microbes are expanding their reach. There is intensified food production, more food-miles and of course use of antimicrobials and hormones as growth promoters.

Resilient bacteria insinuate themselves into fruit, vegetables, poultry, beef and dairy products as they circulate around the globe, generating TRADE-RELATED INFECTIONS (Jill R. Hodges in ‘Globalization and Health’).

Many pathogens survive or even multiply… or they produce high levels of biogenic amines and/or toxins and spread to humans. Of course food safety measures are trying to address infectious pathways, but all of a sudden the microbes appear somewhere else…even in places where they have never been detected before.

This is the dawn of Food Corporatism: The power of the food industry (we have to include the pharmaceutical industry when talking about preservation, food modification, colouring, genes-manipulation) is enormous.

Why ready meals? Beside the main shopping factors (“I have not much time to shop and to prepare food”) and (“It has to be cheap”), consumers decide with their eyes (“looks yummy!”) and their smell, once the food is ready to eat. There is not much interest in the production of the food and no interest in food technology.

Technologies used include: MicVac overpressure, rapid microwave heating, Ohmic heating, Infrared drying, Halogen (IR) lamp- microwave combination oven for bread baking, non-thermal processing, pulsed electric field processing (PEF), E-beams (irridation), cold plasma, high intensity light, nanotechnology filtration, food-bioprocessing, membrane separation technology for saving energy and water, and many more. The customers trust that the food-companies’ main interest is the consumer’s well-being and not their profits… and now they even “listen” and change the recipes. Now the industry uses less salt, less fats in general and less saturated fats and they try to avoid hydrogenated fats and use even organic ingredients. (By the way… nobody is prosecuting them for using the high amount of salt and fat in the first place.).

But they are not focussing on the fact that convenience food is fighting our immune-system, which has not adapted to the new food, and might create new diseases. We have to bear in mind that some food need many generations before our bodies adapt to it. Best example: Compare the incidents of soy allergies in the Western World to those in China or Japan. Magazines print articles written by “one-fits-all-nutritionists” who celebrate the advantage of soy without even mentioning the downsides.

We have less control over the food we eat and drink. We are putting our trust in safe food in the hand of others. Who are the “others”? At the bottom of the scale are the workers within the food-industry, often on a minimum wage, without the best understanding of food handling practices, trying to make a decent living. At the top we have those who own manufacturing and/or distribution companies/outlets or are shareholders of those companies. In free-market terms it is their right to maximise profits and they are therefore interested in saving money wherever possible. Somewhere in the middle we find small scale farmers and producers, in-house scientists with questionable independence, external scientists/researchers paid by the interested groups to deliver wanted results, herds of public relations people who influence the ‘independent’ media whose primary interest is not to inform but to be ahead of competitors. And there is another group: the government, local authorities, governmental institutions, the EU, … and all those who have only the best interest of the consumers in their minds… of course. Here we find all people and groups being lobbied by the industry. Some examples of their ‘independence’: – after Chernobyl there was no risk to eat all kinds of foods; – during ‘foot and mouth’ outbreaks it was safe to eat pork; – during the BSE crisis it was perfectly safe to eat beef and we even saw a politician who fed his daughter with a burger in front of running cameras; – It is widely ignored that there might exist a gastro-intestinal portal for the H5N1 virus (Bird Flu)

Governments allows and even promote the fortification of food. Why? ”Added vitamins and minerals may replace some of the nutritional value lost when the food is being manufactured or stored. They can be added to substitute foods that resemble ordinary food. The best known example is margarine. (Yes, again “cholesterol-reducing FLORA”) Vitamins A and D are added to margarine during production so it will have a similar vitamin level to butter. Nutrients may also be added to foods to fortify or enrich them even if the vitamins and minerals added are not normally contained in that food. Calcium is often added to fruit juices and this can provide an important source for people who do not eat dairy products.”

Fortification is fine — even without consulting the consumers — … now they want to add Folic Acid to bread.

We can go further and further… Privatization of hospitals (many new hospitals will have no kitchen and will be supplied with ready meals), schools, universities will spell the end of independent research. We will replace independent research with lobby research. Of course they will introduce much better names like target research or solution research. Means: The researcher is told what has to be the outcome of the research. So… the battle is lost! Is it…? STOP! We can fight the trend… by trying to make the consumers aware of the risks of ready meals.

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By Dirk Budka

© August 1, 2007

by Dirk Budka
Dirk Budka is a Microbiologist, Allergist and Nutritionist in London, UK where he runs special clinics for Immunology, Gastrointestinal Diseases, Migraine and Skin Diseases. He is also head of the travel clinic within the Hale-Clinic and runs his own lab for tests and research regarding parasites, bacteria and fungi.