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A rushed world reconsiders its food

  • 2011-11-03
  • By Egle Juozenaite

HOMEGROWN: Without chemicals, organic produce tastes a whole lot better.

RIGA - Life today comes at us at a fast pace, and when it comes to deciding on how to keep our energy levels at an optimum level, we find we have less time for the kitchen to prepare and enjoy “proper” meals. It is much easier to buy some already prepared food - frozen TV dinners, a sandwich in a plastic box at Statoil - or go to a restaurant. That is quick, convenient and inexpensive, but may not be so good for us. And, maybe more importantly, we also miss out on the social aspects of eating.

The global transition to a fast food diet risks ruining the health of nations, as obesity, diabetes and other poor diet afflictions register a rising trend. Fast food usually contains high fat levels, a lot of calories, cholesterol, and sodium while lacking in sufficient vitamins and minerals. Those, who eat fast food every day are at risk of various health problems including high blood pressure and heart disease. The “Slow Food” movement is an alternative to fast food; it has a philosophy which says that people should slow down and think about their food, what they eat, and that they should take time for food preparation and enjoy the meal with friends or family, sitting around the table.

The “Slow Food” association is a movement in protest to the rise of fast food and the increasing speed of life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat. It is to remind people of where our food comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world,” says the “Slow Food” organization’s Web site.

In 1989, Carlo Petrini, after joining a protest against a McDonald’s opening in an historic area, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, in Rome, set up his slow food movement. Local farmers have also protested against a McDonald’s in France. “They destroyed the restaurant.  One farmer was arrested. The judge in the case included property damage and sentenced him. That got world publicity and the farmer was shown in handcuffs, and people all over the world sent him money for support,” said Martins Ritins, the pioneer of “Slow Food” in Riga and part-owner and chef of the restaurant Vincents.

The king of fast food, the first McDonald’s in Riga opened in 1994. Currently there are eight restaurants in Latvia, all located in Riga. “Our first restaurant outside the capital, in Daugavpils, will open on November 15. It will mark the beginning of McDonald’s expansion plans into the regions of Latvia,” said Tomasz Nawrocki, managing director of Premier Restaurants Latvia, McDonald’s representative in the Baltic States.

In 1996 Ritins, together with Dainis Abolins, founded the association “Slow Food Riga.”
“Today the association includes more than 70 members from all around Latvia. They are producers, entrepreneurs and farmers, young people and teachers, gourmets and supporters of the idea, housewives and diplomats, all those to whom it is important what we eat and how it has come to us,” says Vincents’ Web site.

Everything that we eat used to be wild, but now we no longer have products which our ancestors had. “For example, wild tomatoes were orange and small. Now we have just mass-produced tomatoes; they haven’t seen soil, they are all grown in little cotton packs. It is like being in intensive care in the hospital, all these tubes running in there,” said Ritins regretfully.
Another example of lost heritage is the carrot. “Everyone thinks that the carrot is orange, but it’s not the truth. Carrots could be white, purple or red. The carrot originated in Afghanistan, and used to grow wild around Europe. It was modified by the Dutch in the 17th century, and after that it has an orange color. It was the symbol of the royal house in Holland, which was named the House of Orange,” added Ritins.

The same thing is with chickens. Chickens today “are all in big factories. In Latvia there are 70 to 20,000 chickens in one barn. Three quarters of them don’t reach maturity; maturity is now reduced to 36 days. They are full of antibiotics, chemicals and genetically modified soy. The chickens are feed all the time and are given 23 hours of direct light. The chicken grows up in a very small, A4 paper, size cage. When they are born, they are little and can run around, but they are getting bigger and bigger and in the end all they can do is just eat and eat and eat. Their bone structure cannot support such amounts of force feeding,” stated Ritins.

The food industry is big business, with laws seemingly made for large companies. “The problem is that the small producer has to fill out the same forms as the big, and there is very little support for small farmers. Farmers have to pass lots of inspections and to fill many papers,” maintained Ritins.

According to Liga Drozdovska, Biotechnology and Quality Assurance senior officer at the Veterinary and Food Processing Department in the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, at the end of 2010 there were 3,593 certified organic growers in the country. In 2010, of all the certified growers, 3,373 were organic agricultural groups, 7 farms had received the certificate for transition to organic farming and 213 farms have started the transition.

“Organic farmers, processors and importers must satisfy strict regulations. Inspections have to be performed at every stage in the organic farming supply chain, allowing the consumer to be confident that he is buying organic food, which has been produced according to strict European rules. Every farmer, processor and importer in the organic farming supply chain is inspected at least once a year to ensure their compliance with the organic farming regulations,” she says.

Regulations, however, are not effective if not followed. It is sometimes difficult to find farmers who run their farms following all the rules. “Latvians have a cheese named Janu siers. ‘Slow Food’ put it on the list and said that it should be saved. ‘Slow Food’ from Italy came and visited two farms where Janu siers is made. They were excited by one woman, who had one cow and was making Janu siers every day in the traditional way. One cow, one cheese, is nice; it’s organic. A lot of people who make Janu siers put in chemicals. Big companies put in a nice color and chemicals for a long expiration date, then put it in plastic; cheese should not be in plastic, it should breath,” stated Ritins.

“Organic farming is an agricultural system based on the principles of minimizing the human impact on the environment, at the same time ensuring as natural as possible the functioning of the agricultural system,” said Drozdovska.
The main principles of organic farming include: “wide crop rotation as a prerequisite for an efficient use of on-site resources; very strict limits on chemical synthetic pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use, livestock antibiotics, food additives and processing aids and other inputs; absolute prohibition of the use of genetically modified organisms; taking advantage of on-site resources, such as livestock manure for fertilizer or feed produced on the farm; choosing plant and animal species that are resistant to disease and adapted to local conditions; raising livestock in free-range, open-air systems and providing them with organic feed and using animal husbandry practices appropriate to different livestock species,” maintained Drozdovska.

More consumers might be attracted to eating healthier if they could find the produce. There are not so many places where people can buy organic, local production. In Riga Central Market, instead of Latvian products you buy something imported from Poland, or grown on a big industrial farm. Local, organic and fresh products can, though, be found in Kalnciema Quarter and the “Slow Food” market at Bergs Bazaar in Riga.

“Five years ago I started Bergs Bazaar. I had a 100 percent organic market in the old city, but then City Hall changed and we were asked to move out. When Bergs Bazaar started, the philosophy of market owners was to have lots of variety, but I said no, we should stick with the ‘Slow Food’ philosophy and the rules from Italy, which I translated into the Latvian language,” Ritins said.

Large industrial farms and factories use powders for flavor, MSG (monosodium glutamate), add different, addictive chemicals and colors. “People say they like it, it tastes good and get addicted, just like cigarette smoking. If people eat something organic, they say, I don’t like that, it’s tasteless, because they are used to all these things which are put into food. And those foods are made like in a laboratory; it is not real,” maintained Ritins.

Nawrocki asserts that McDonald’s does not add any food coloring, additives or preservatives, because the main priority at McDonald’s is the quality of the food. Asked about the expiration date of a hamburger, Nawrocki says that “There is no restaurant that provides, or there is no country in which legislation sets, the rule for restaurants, cafes to indicate expiration dates of their prepared meals. At McDonald’s we believe that prepared food tastes best immediately after it is prepared, therefore, we ensure that all our visitors get freshly prepared meals.”
The McDonald’s fries and organic fries are different. “Organic fries will get moldy in a few days; McDonald’s fries six months later still look the same. And the taste and smells, what they put on, is made by the same person who made Chanel perfume. It is laboratory food,” stated Ritins.

“We reduce the amount of spices to the minimum to keep the natural food taste. For example, we can describe the burger making process. To save valuable substances in the beef, it is frozen after cutting and forming, and the beef stays frozen even till the moment of cooking. Before distribution, it is carefully tested by McDonald’s collaboration partner OSI Food Solutions. Only when microbiological, chemical, and sensory - consistency, form, look and taste - test results are perfect, does the beef reach the restaurants,” explained Nawrocki.

“All products for the Baltic McDonald’s are purchased from our certified farmers, who meet the company’s quality and safety standards as well as conform, or even outperform, requirements of the European Union. The beef for McDonald’s burgers is taken only from selected high-grade beef that is approved as safe by experts, scientists, the World Health organization and other organizations.

McDonald’s has 170 items of ingredients, from 27 highly trusted and certified suppliers throughout Europe. Some of those suppliers are in the Baltic States, said Nawrocki.
Large chain supermarkets have gotten into the organic product market. But before buying, it is important to make sure that the product is really organic, to read its label. Very often “organic products come in big cases from China, and are dry products. The garlic comes either from Egypt or China. If you put the garlic into a dish of water, it [should] start to sprout and grow green; Chinese garlic doesn’t; it is dead. They have been bleached to look good,” warned Ritins.

Rimi stores offer almost 250 products under bio and eco labels, as well as about 20 Fairtrade products. “Our stores offer products provided by local producers, and organic products imported from other EU countries. Currently, in Rimi stores customers can buy more than 30 biologic food products made by local producers including bread, wheat flour, dairy products, honey, herbal teas and different goat milk products. So far the biologic products available in Rimi stores come from eight local producers comprised of farms and companies; products comply with all directives for ecological food within the European Union,” said Dace Valnere, Rimi Latvia’s senior public relations specialist.

Their customers have already had the opportunity to purchase several sorts of ecological fruit and vegetables cultivated in different EU countries; currently, the assortment contains ecologic red bell peppers, zucchinis, plum tomatoes, pears, two varieties of apples, onions, carrots, corn, avocados and kiwi fruit. Plum tomatoes are most in demand,” added Valnere.
In one of his TV appearances, Ritins conducted an experiment. He went to two supermarkets and found that they have, maybe, 12 or 15 kinds of apples. They are delivered from South America, Peru, Venezuela, also from China, Spain, France, Belgium and other countries, but Latvian supermarkets did not have any Latvian apples. “Everything around you looks so beautiful and perfect, but what’s missing is the smell, the aroma; also, you don’t know from which season it is,” stated Ritins.

“Slow Food” is a seasonal, local, organic food movement, one in which the farmer receives fair prices. It invites people to think about the food they eat, from where it comes from, by whom and how it was made. “Slow Food” says consumers should look back to our ancestral life. That means people should go back to an agricultural lifestyle.

It is not so difficult to grow one or two vegetables on your windowsill or balcony if you live in a flat in the city. It also doesn’t take much of your time, but the vegetable which you grow will be something different, fresh, from what you may be used to from the supermarket, and may just get you onto the road to a more flavorful and healthy culinary lifestyle.