Published: November 2011
Sorting the wheat from the chaff
Leonie Nimmo investigates dry pasta and pasta sauce producers
People unaccustomed to reading the small print on product labels may be surprised to learn that the leading authentic-sounding household pasta and pasta sauce brands are made by a few familiar food giants.
Dolmio is produced by Mars, Buitoni by Nestlé and Bertolli by Unilever. All three of these companies have an active consumer boycott against them. Throw a couple of mid-ranking companies into the pasta pot and the mainstream market is pretty much cooked. Encouragingly, however, there are also a large number of organic and ethical brands, most of which are featured in the Best Buy box. At least some of these should be available at your local wholefood shop. Below we take a look at a couple of key ingredients.
Tomatoes: A blighted crop
Migrant workers harvesting tomatoes in Southern Italy experience such harsh conditions they have been dubbed ‘Europe’s tomato slaves’. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Florida, tomato production by migrant labourers is also marred by slavery.
This “is not ‘slavery-like,’ or ‘exploitation’ — it’s actual slavery, as defined by federal law”, according to Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) campaigner Laura Germino.(4) Prosecutions have taken place accordingly. Campaigners have targeted the big buying companies - Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, McDonald’s, and Burger King - resulting in agreements being made to improve conditions for migrant tomato workers.
An Ecologist investigation into migrant workers in Southern Italian tomato farms in September 2011 found workers living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and afraid to speak out for fear of deportation and retribution.(1) With temperatures hitting 40 degrees in the high season, they carry out back-breaking work for up to 14 hours a day. At the mercy of gangmasters, who deduct fees from wages for accommodation, transport, food and other ‘services’, they are heavily exploited and at risk of violence. The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, which usually works in conflict zones, has been providing medical humanitarian assistance to migrant workers in Southern Italy since 2003. They have reported seeing victims hospitalised after beatings and gunshot wounds and have repeatedly raised the issue of restricted access to healthcare for these people.(2)
The workers are from Eastern Europe, North Africa and, increasingly, countries in West Africa such as Ghana. Ghana’s domestic tomato processing industry was destroyed by the economic policies forced on it by the International Monetary Fund as it embarked on ‘structural adjustment’ in the 1990s.
The country, abundant with tomatoes, could no longer protect its domestic industry. Cheap imports of processed tomatoes, notably from Italy, further undermined domestic production. Quite feasibly, Ghanain migrant workers in Italy may today be harvesting products that are exported to their home country at the expense of the livelihoods of tomato farmers there - creating an even stronger push for Ghanains to leave Ghana in search of work.
A field study conducted in 2007 found 56 brands of tomato paste originating from Italy and China on the market in Ghana – ridiculous for a country which grows so much of the crop itself. This seems to either be a testimony to the insanity of the current (economic) system and evidence of its obvious failure, or a managed consequence of a system which facilitates the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Organic standards and workers’ rights
Organic standards usually include some criteria to protect workers in supply chains – the Soil Association’s accreditation, for example, requires agricultural producers to comply with the core standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This, however, does not equate to Ethical Consumer current analysis of best practice in supply chain labour-standards management, which nowadays contains commitments to auditing, reporting, complaints, remediation and tackling difficult issues. It should also be noted that different organic certifying bodies have different standards.
Wheat: the new kitchen villain?
An increasing number of households are now dealing with the prospect of catering for people suffering gluten intolerance – as if all the other dietary worries we have to deal with aren’t enough!
Coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the intestine which interferes with the absorption of nutrients, is a condition with a spectrum of symptoms and severity, so diagnosis can be tricky.
There’s also quite a bit of confusion surrounding the issue, but it does seem to be on the rise and it seems likely that our current over-consumption of highly processed wheat-based products may be linked.(9) Symptoms can include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss and nutritional problems such as anemia.
Gluten is found in grains, primarily wheat but also barley and rye. Conventional pasta is therefore off limits to people with this condition. Happily, there are now a number of different varieties of wheat-free and/or gluten-free pasta, made with ingredients such as rice, maize, buckwheat and quinoa. Also available is hemp pasta made with spelt - a lower gluten but not gluten-free option.
Dry pasta is suitable for vegans, but almost all fresh pasta will contain egg. Black pasta is also unsuitable as it is made from squid ink. Fresh pasta containing egg or filled with cheese could come from dairy animals fed on genetically modified crops. Buying organic fresh pasta ensures GM free.
Clearspring is a vegan company specialising in organic European and Japanese food. It claims to work directly with producers, “building long-term partnerships of ethical trade that support sustainable organic farming and benefit local communities”.
La Bio Idea is produced by DO-IT (Dutch Organic International Trade). Founded in 1991 it trades, produces and distributes organic products internationally. In countries such as China and Thailand, its partners work with EcoSocial, a programme for “fair relations in trading socially and environmentally certified organic products”.
Essential Trading is a workers’ co-operative with an egalitarian, non-hierarchical structure, which trades with other ethical producers and co-operatives. It won’t trade with supermarkets. It manufactures sustainable wholefoods, ecological household products and cruelty-free body care items in the UK and distributes internationally.
La Terra e il Cielo (the Earth and the Sky) is an Italian co-operative of more than one hundred farmer members, producing organic and biodynamic food and drink. Founded in 1980, it has rediscovered and revived old varieties of cereals and pulses. According to its website: “In thirty years, the cooperative has developed into a solid reality of Italian organic, without ever losing touch with the values of solidarity, equity and respect for nature, from which she was born”.
Napolina (Little Naples) is owned by Japanese multinational Mitsubishi Corp, a huge company involved in metals, chemicals, machinery, energy (coal, oil and nuclear) and food, including Liverpool-based Princes. Princes was initially placed last of eight brands of tinned tuna in Greenpeace’s 2011 sustainability league table but two months after the league table was launched it committed to removing tuna caught using fish aggregating devices in combination with purse seine nets (which has the worst by-catch) from their supply chains by 2014. In 2009, the Independent revealed that Mitsubishi Corp had a 40 per cent share of the world market in bluefin tuna, one of the world’s most endangered fish.(5)
Usually, the Nestlé name is prominent on its products but Buitoni is a little known Nestlé brand, which is not even listed on the company’s UK website. Nestlé continues to be boycotted worldwide for violating international baby milk marketing standards. Earlier in the year, a Greenpeace campaign targeted Kit Kat for its sourcing of palm oil from a company deforesting the Indonesian rainforest. The campaign was successful: Nestlé agreed to drop the supplier and commit to zero deforestation in its supply chain.
Mars is a famously very secretive company owned by the Mars family. Most of its business is chocolate, including the eponymous Mars bar, but it also owns Whiskas pet food, Uncle Ben’s rice and Wrigley’s chewing gum.
Having nailed its colours to the Rainforest Alliance mast in 2009 with its Galaxy chocolate, Mars has just announced that its first Fairtrade Foundation product, Maltesers, will appear on the shelves in 2012. Its chocolate rivals, Nestlé and Cadbury, were much quicker off the mark having launched Fairtrade Foundation products in 2009. No news yet whether this indicates a switch to the more exacting Fairtrade Foundation certification for its other cocoa products.
It is the subject of two boycott calls for its treatment of animals.(7)
Mr. Organic, from the Organic Family Ltd, was launched in 2009 by an ex-City Lawyer and two Italian partners. Its suppliers include a farm which trains and employs disabled people.
Organico Realfoods is a small British company based in Reading. Alongside its Organico brand it also produces Fish4Ever sustainable canned fish and Organic Collection sweet treats.
Premier Foods is the UK’s largest food producer, owning such household names as Hovis, Branston and Mr Kipling. It “tries to source ingredients as much as possible from the UK (69% in 2010) with 80% of all the vegetables it uses coming from British farms”. Two thirds of the eggs it uses are free range including all in Mr Kipling’s cakes, but it still uses non free range meat and poultry. Unusually for a large food company, it returned our questionnaire. Its palm oil procurement policy is progressive and it only misses top rating for environmental reporting because its report is not independently verified.
All of the products sold by Traidcraft are Fairtrade, earning it a positive Company Ethos mark. It loses a mark in the Animal Rights column for the sale of leather, silk and sweets containing gelatine and carmine.
The Suma range is produced by Triangle Wholefoods, a workers’ co-operative based in West Yorkshire. Founded in 1975, today it is the UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler and distributor. It specialises in vegetarian, fairly traded, organic and natural products.
Biofair and Biona are both brands produced by Windmill Organics. All of its products are organic but the company does not report publicly on its environmental impacts. It has a turnover of above £8 million, the threshold below which Ethical Consumer applies an exemption in this category for environmentally progressive companies.
Meridian is owned by 3V Natural Foods, which also produces Rocks organic drinks and supplies Rasancó organic ingredients.
Unilever is an enormous company, generating revenue across the globe from Albania to Zimbabwe. Its portfolio of food, personal care and homecare brands include household favourites Persil, Marmite, PG Tips, Vaseline and Lynx, to name just a few. It is the subject of a boycott call by Naturewatch for its continued failure to implement an adequate animal testing policy.
As one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil it has repeatedly come under fire for using suppliers alleged to have damaged the environment and/or committed human rights abuses. It has de-listed at least two suppliers, but Rainforest Rescue launched a new campaign against the company in August 2011 focussing on the actions of one of its major suppliers, Wilmar. The campaign group is calling on its supporters to write to Unilever highlighting Wilmar’s hiring of a paramilitary combat unit in Sumatra to intimidate indigenous people and peasants, destroy their homes and drive them off their land.(12)
Meena pasta sauces are made by Associated British Foods, one of the UK’s biggest family owned businesses. It is 55% owned by the Weston family through Wittington Investments. Wittington also owns upmarket department store, Fortnum and Mason, a company which still sells foie gras which is made from the swollen livers of force-fed ducks and geese.
Associated British Foods also owns the UK’s second biggest clothes shop, Primark.