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UK vs. US food: What I learned during my time abroad

18th May 2016

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Moving across the pond to London from Southern California, I didn’t really expect to see all that many cultural differences. I guess I just assumed the Brits were like us except they had a Queen, drank tea and had to carry umbrellas everywhere. And while all of this is true, there are more subtle differences that are actually quite surprising.

I guess you could say it all started with the egg – and no I don’t mean in the philosophical sense. My first trip to the grocery store I spent a good 20 minutes searching for the eggs in the refrigerated section, only to discover there were none.

For a good minute I considered the horrific possibility that there were no eggs in the UK. Maybe they don’t eat eggs here? Maybe eggs aren’t a thing? How is this possible? But as I was fumbling through the aisles, confused and worried, lo and behold I found them tucked nice and neat next to the baking supplies. Except they weren’t white; they were brown. There were no white eggs to be found. What on earth?

The reason for my confusion, as it turns out, is because the US Deptartment of Agriculture (USDA) requires that eggs be washed, chemically sanitised, and dried to remove all bacteria build-up in the eggs – hence white eggs.

Due to this process eggs are kept refrigerated at a set temperature in the US. This cleaning method has to be followed closely in order to work, and if done incorrectly can actually be rather harmful.

As a result the UK believes this process is more trouble than it’s worth. The UK and the EU as a whole require their eggs not be washed, and so keep them unrefrigerated to also prevent bacteria build-up.

So no big deal, this just means there are two different ways of selling eggs, right? Not quite.

Another important thing to consider is salmonella: while most eggs in the UK come from vaccinated hens (you can’t have the British Lion Quality mark if your hens aren’t vaccinated), the reverse is true for the US. Only about one-third of flocks are vaccinated and while salmonella poisoning was essentially eradicated in the 1990’s for the UK, at the start of widespread vaccination, there still remains approximately 140,000 cases a year in the US from eggs alone. So it’s illegal to purchase US eggs in the UK.

When I discovered this I was shocked to say the least. Why on earth would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not require the vaccination of our hens? Why is the US stuck with the short end of the stick?

Unfortunately, the egg issue only scratched the surface. As it turns out there are plenty of foods that are readily available for consumption in America that are straight up banned in the UK.

Things like artificial food dyes, brominated vegetable oil, synthetic growth hormones and even arsenic (yes, the poison) are all allowed to a certain extent in our food. All of these ingredients have been linked to various cancers, birth defects, and nerve and organ damage, just to name a few “side effects”. And let’s not forget arsenic, which can literally kill you.

Sadly, I can’t say I was completely shocked by our lower than average food standards. I don’t think the US has ever been perceived as a healthy nation and no one is more aware of that fact than its actual citizens. No, what shocked me was the fact that other countries didn’t have to deal with the same thing.

I knew there was crap in our food, but I naively assumed that this was something every country had to deal with. Genetically modified organisms in our food? Well it’s not like we’re the only ones... Except we pretty much are. In fact, US companies will actually modify their ingredients for the UK to include healthier ingredients in accordance with regulations. So those McDonald’s French fries (sorry, “chips”) I love so much are actually much healthier in the UK.

It’s the same with Starbucks drinks, M&M’s, and a whole slew of other products. Finding out we’re intentionally being given shittier food? I think this above anything else made me wish I could actually blow steam out of my ears like in the cartoons.

It’s infuriating that corporations can get away with this and the general public isn’t made aware. I realise that they’re doing this for profit and cheaper (unhealthier) ingredients mean cheaper prices, but should Americans really have to choose between quality food and low cost? The answer is no.

It’s not fair that we’re made to pay more for “healthier options” when those options should be the baseline.

I can tell you right now unhealthy brands outnumber healthy brands in US supermarkets 2:1, and often you’ll have to go to healthier stores such as Whole Foods for any sort of variety. Basically even if Americans are made aware of what’s going on in their food, it’s not cheap and it’s not easy to buy healthier alternatives.

So why should you care? Regardless of what side of the pond you live on, this is an issue that affects everyone.

For Americans it’s pretty obvious that we’ve been getting ripped off for decades. However, there are plenty of organisations out there making strides towards improving our food standards and raising awareness. Organisations like NON GMO Project, aimed at verifying and labelling all Non-GMO foods, and Whole Cities, which provides access to healthier foods for local communities, have several options for getting involved.

Even just raising awareness is enough. Spread the word and tell people what’s going on!

And for my UK friends thinking they’re in the clear – think again. To get political for a second, I know Brexit is a hot topic at the moment with both sides battling it out rather impressively. One important issue of note is TTIP. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, TTIP stands for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is a series of mostly secret trade negotiations being carried out between the EU and the US.

This agreement, if successfully negotiated, would reduce regulatory trade barriers for things like banking, the environment, and – you guessed it – food safety. In other words, TTIP would aim to lower EU food standards to be more in line with those of the US.

Mind you this agreement is not yet official, and the specifics are still very much dependent on a myriad of political outcomes to be decided in the near future, but it is something that needs to be considered. So once again, regardless of which side of the ocean you’re on, food safety is no joke and should be treated accordingly.

If there’s one thing I’ll take away from living abroad it’s that no American, or anyone for that matter, should have to compromise when it comes to food safety. It’s time we caught up with the rest of our fellow peers, people! Imagine a day when we can enjoy some brown eggs with non-GMO milk at a reasonable price.

The organic version of the American dream? Perhaps.

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