Work fair: a tea grower waters his crops in Changxing County, eastern China. Photo: XU YU/XINHUA PRESS/CORBIS
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The everyday heroes who think about what they eat

Julian Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways we live our values. But would he ask a dinner host where she got her chicken?

I’m trying to work out what kind of dinner guest Julian Baggini would make. The philosopher has just told me that he routinely quizzes waiting staff on the provenance of their meat – but would he do the same to a friend?

He hesitates, weighing up the obligations of hospitality against the responsibilities of the consumer, and then moves the conversation on to his pescetarian past, leaving the question hanging between us. I’m fairly sure that he wouldn’t refuse your roast chicken if you were a bit hazy about its origins (as he observes, such a gesture is of little benefit to the animal concerned) but I’m not guaranteeing it.

Questions of this sort come up a lot in his latest book, The Virtues of the Table, a rare foray into the philosophy of food. I wonder why the subject has received so little attention in the past, given that even Aristotle had to eat.

We decide to pin the blame on a historical tendency to privilege the intellectual life over the mere “plumbing” of our physical existence (though, as Baggini wryly observes, the fact that it’s “very hard” to be pretentious about “nutrition and excretion” may have something to do with it, too).

But in an age when even petrol station pasties proclaim their artisan credentials, it’s amazing how incurious we are about the food we eat; even those of us who think of ourselves as conscientious consumers rarely look beyond the particular buzzwords that we have decided fit our world-view. Such labels – “local”, “Fairtrade”, “sustainable” – undoubtedly save time at the supermarket, but matters are rarely so simple. There is no algorithm to help you make the right choices every time.

For example, I drink organic milk on welfare grounds, yet I have farmer friends who, like the cheese-maker quoted in Baggini’s book, would never switch to organic for the same reason: “If I get sick, I’ll go to the bloody doctor and get antibiotics and I’d expect to do the same thing with my animals.”

Baggini would like us all to ask a few more questions about our milk, our coffee and even our Egg McMuffin (free-range, he notes approvingly), and not to beat ourselves up over every slip. “If you accept you can only ever do your best, you won’t get disillusioned,” he says, when, for instance, someone publishes an exposé of exploitation in Fairtrade co-operatives or the environmental cost of British tomatoes. And though the Auguste Escoffier quotation that serves as the book’s epigraph (“To know how to eat is to know how to live”) may sound rather grandiose if you’re opening a tin of beans, Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways in which we live our values.

“You don’t become a good person by performing occasional acts of great heroism,” he points out. It’s the quotidian things that make a difference – the decision to spend a little more on our morning cuppa to ensure that growers in Malawi are paid fairly for their crop, or just taking a moment to appreciate and be thankful for that tea.

Baggini believes that if we embrace ideals such as compassion, justice and generosity in the choices we make three times a day, the food we eat will have the power to make us better people. As becoming a better person is an ongoing project of mine, it’s a relief to discover that the coffee shop I have chosen for our rendezvous boasts impeccably sourced beans and has hidden its rather less carefully sourced milk behind the counter, away from my companion’s eagle eye. I don’t think he’d have refused that flat white if he’d known . . . but then again, I’m not 100 per cent sure.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.