MAVERICK CITIZEN Tuesday Editorial

We are what we eat

By Mark Heywood 9 February 2021

(Photo: brainworldmagazine.com / Wikipedia)

At Maverick Citizen, we care deeply about issues of social justice. We believe that the most powerful antidote to injustice is an active citizenry.

Since our launch in September 2019, we have worked to inform you about the human rights activists in our midst – the unsung heroes fighting for justice, land, health, clean water, food and education. In partnership with our colleagues at GroundUp, Spotlight and New Frame we’ve tried our best to highlight the wrongs in society: the Covid-19 corruption, the ongoing injustice of pit toilets, municipal collapse, hunger, our beleaguered and unequal healthcare system, and so much more.

A human right that deserves greater public attention is food: It’s a constitutional imperative that “everyone has the right to sufficient food and water” and that children have a right to “basic nutrition”.

The right to food, the South African Human Rights Commission notes, must be “observed, respected, promoted, protected and indeed accessible to all citizens”. And yet, something that is so central to our survival is tragically illusive for far too many people. Millions suffer from hunger and malnutrition, while government fat cats and the ultra-rich revel off the fat of the land. It’s an outrage. 

Sadly, the food and beverage sector is also rife with misconduct and safety transgressions. Think about the food scandals which we know about – listeriosis, horse and other meat sold as beef, melamine-contaminated pet food, tainted milk, fake alcohol, “mad cow disease” and bread price-fixing. 

In the age of Covid, there’s no greater question than that around the emergence of the novel coronavirus, with many scientists believing that this and future pandemics that are in the wings are linked to climate change and species jump.

As active citizens, we must hold the government accountable, as we should when companies such as Tiger Brands sell tainted processed meats, when expiry dates are tampered with, when restaurant and retail outlets sell red-listed fish or suspect species, when ineffectual “fat-burning” diet aids are marketed, when neighbourhood bakeries pass off wheat products as gluten-free and certainly when Sudan red adulterates our spices. 

There are far too many other stories that don’t see the light of day because of devious behaviour from individuals, companies and government agencies. And Maverick Citizen’s small new team of food journalists want to bring you those stories. 

We won’t be swanning around for easy stories in lovely places or criticising meals prepared for us; we’ll go behind the scenes, looking into food and beverage production from field to fork. 

We are inspired by the work of famed “muckraker” Upton Sinclair, whose harrowing 1905 serialised accounts of a Lithuanian immigrant meatpacker’s work in an unsanitary sector, published in the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason, triggered a chain reaction that began with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, prohibiting misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs and culminated in the formation of the US Food and Drug Administration in 1930. 

“There were cattle which had been fed on ‘whiskey-malt’, the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men called ‘steerly’ — which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see?”

Millions of copies were sold of Upton’s 1906 book, The Jungle, cementing his reputation among food journalists as a social justice crusader for the warts and all exposé of the food sector, its health scares, environmental impact and labour conditions.

This week, Maverick Citizen welcomes our food journalists on board, consumer journalist Georgina Crouth and recent Rhodes graduate Michelle Banda. 

They’ll be looking at the food and beverage system in its entirety – at health, the economy, environment, ethics, policy and law, human and animal rights, as well as food culture – by examining whether it is helping or harming our health and our environment.

Some of the focus areas will be sugar, junk and ultra-processed food, malnutrition, labelling, marketing, scam products and supplements.

We welcome your ideas, stories or suggestions so contact us at [email protected] DM/MC

Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.

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