From rasher with love

Observations on bacon

Time was, if the Danes could be confident of one thing, it was that Danish bacon was from Denmark. Not any more. Over the past few years, Danish meat processors have been buying up production facilities in neighbouring areas of Poland and Germany, where they take advantage of low land and labour costs to produce bacon more cheaply than they can in Denmark. Consequently, whereas in 2001 just 5 per cent of bacon consumed in Denmark was imported, by 2005 the proportion had increased to more than 75 per cent.

Something similar is happening in the UK, which, to its credit, has adopted relatively high standards of pig welfare. For example, sow stalls and tethers, used to restrain pigs while they nurse their young, have been illegal here since 1999, but are only now being phased out elsewhere in Europe. As a result, UK processors find it cheaper to import pig meat raised elsewhere (mainly in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany), cure, slice and package it in the UK, and label it "British". According to the British Pig Executive, last year, for the first time, more bacon was produced here from imported pork than from UK pigs. Less than a quarter of "British" bacon on sale in the UK comes from pigs raised in Britain.

But who would know? In Denmark, the sole indication of the country of origin were the letters "D" or "PL" and a serial number, in tiny print on the back of the packs. It was only when Thorkild Nielsen, a researcher at the Technical University of Denmark, tracked down the identities of the factory numbers that he discovered the letters stood for Germany and Poland, respectively, and the bacon's hidden origins were uncovered.

Yet, while consumers remain in the dark, producers and retailers know more than ever before about where foods come from and what happens along the way. Prompted by food scares and fears of food terrorism, many countries demand "traceability", the idea being that if a problem arises, suspect goods can be easily recalled. Traceability also helps food companies manage supply chains efficiently, with the result that they are developing systems of extraordinary sophistication using bar codes, radio tags and web-based data repositories to track goods.

With EU funding, Nielsen is investigating how traceability systems can help consumers know more about the food they buy. For example, if you care about food miles, or endorse the higher standards enjoyed by UK pigs, or deplore the exploitation of Polish workers, traceability could help you to buy in a way that supported your beliefs. But are the systems being used to inform the buyer?

Some food products, organic or fair-trade, for example, are explicitly sold on the basis of their provenance. But beyond this, the EU researchers found that very little of the information available is reaching consumers, and that commercial requirements of producers are determining the nature of the information being collected. Yet the ethical consumer is said to be in the ascendant.

According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London, which also took part in the research, we are seeing a shift from "value for money", the idea that price is the overriding determinant of choice, towards "values for money", reflecting the notion that consumers and business are all part of society, and that it is incumbent on all to be socially responsible.

"Ethical" shopping has long been seen as a luxury. Traceability technology, harnessed in the interests of consumers, could democratise it. Meanwhile, in the words of Christian Coff, project co-ordinator, "We eat secrets."