There you are watching TV, tucking in to your beef lasagne and you find that it may have won the four-thirty at Haydock Park. Food quality was a major issue back in the nineteenth century and a key factor in the growth of the co-operative retail movement. Who would have thought that over a hundred and fifty years later food adulteration would raise its head again?
The horse meat scandal has exposed all sorts of shady dealing. It is shocking to discover that shops selling foodstuffs did not know (or appear to care) what it was and perhaps even worse consumers did not know or care what they where eating.
The worst feature of this crisis is not the duplicity of food producers and retailers who are after all only in it for the money. The surprise is the constant shock at the idea that profit seeking enterprises are only in it for profit!
When I was small my mum taught me not to put anything in my mouth if I did not know where it had come from. Yet millions everyday eat food that is processed to such an extent you need a forensic laboratory to know what it is. As someone who likes his grub I find this deeply sad.
Good food is one of life’s great pleasures and yet a swathe of our population has been enslaved by relentless marketing and advertising and by a growing addiction to salt, sugar and fat, to believe that this stuff is edible. Sadly this is something of a class issue. Growing health and obesity issues do disproportionately affect the less affluent that have been conned into believing they can only afford cheap processed crap. It is ironic that in Britain the rich make a fortune selling this stuff to the poor whilst they eat like Mediterranean peasants.
It now seems amazing that early council houses where built with large gardens so that people could offset the rent by growing their own vegetables. We are a nation that has become alienated from the environment and have lost all sense of where our food comes from with many seasonal foods available all year around - all that varies is their number of air miles.
Thankfully there is growing resistance to this environmentally damaging food economy. Some of it is being lead by a growing network of new co-operative stores selling organic and ethically sourced foodstuffs. A classic example since its opening in 1996 is the wonderful Unicorn grocery in Chorlton, South Manchester.
This multi award winning - Observer Food Monthly’s Best Independent Shop, Radio 4 Food Programs Best Independent Retailer - store’s basic offer is affordable, wholesome food with a focus on organic, fair-trade and local sourcing. As a workers co-op, owned and managed by the people who work in it they have created a place they would want to shop in themselves.
Their focus is on basic ingredients for tasty, interesting and affordable cooking with around seventy lines of organic fruit and veg at prices that compare well to the supermarket chains.
Unicorn also owns 21 acres of prime growing land, just 14 miles from the shop, tenanted by a co-op of organic growers, improving and securing the regional veg supply for the future. Packed on site they have a wide variety of staple cooking ingredients such as pulses, grains, nuts, dried fruits and spices, provide the basis for really good value meals.
Put this together with organic beer and wine, daily fresh organic bread and an ever-expanding deli counter and you have a winning combination. They also have a growing selection of environmentally friendly baby products, cosmetics and household goods made from natural ingredients.
Unicorn also caters to people seeking dairy free, gluten free and sugar free products. The shop is full of information about trade and food issues, and aims to help customers make informed shopping choices.
So does it work financially? Well it has grown from a turnover of £3,500 to £3.5 million, from 4 members to 50. The worker/members donate a steady 5% of wage costs to local and international projects relating to its Principles of Purpose and also contribute to a tree planting scheme with a carbon tax in an attempt to offset some of the environmental impact of running the business.
There may not be room for a Unicorn on every high street but surely there is a need for one in every small town and every suburb? Unicorn encourages others to have ago themselves with a self-help guide to opening your own new co-op store on their website at: www.unicorn-grocery.co.uk. If your town needs better food and a healthier diet why not have a go and Grow a Grocery?