Food Crime: The Musical!

Food Crime The Musical. As ideas go, it’s pretty out there.

And yet The Hand That Feeds, which premiered at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring in Birmingham this weekend (click here for a recording and a trailer) has a serious message that belies the slightly silly-sounding set-up.

Created by the New Optimists forum, the musical wants to re-engage a post-Horsegate public with the big questions about the food we eat and buy. It explores issues like provenance, food prices, authenticity and labelling through the prism of its central character, Robbie – a food trader and self-confessed “average family man” who comes to realise how his own deals and actions affect the complex food supply chains he is a part of.

“My job is simple distribution; in a way I’m making a contribution,” Robbie sings blithely at the start of the musical, before a ‘wake-up call’ forces him to take a serious look at his own responsibilities and culpabilities.

As a theatre graduate and The Grocer’s resident horsemeat expert, you’d perhaps expect me to be rather taken by this concept. But The Hand That Feeds highlights a wider issue that deserves attention even if devised performance isn’t your thing.

It’s incredibly hard to engage consumers on the issue of food crime, unless – as with Horsegate – there’s a major crisis going on. In the absence of a scandal, authenticity quickly drops off the radar. Part of the problem is, as the FSA’s Food Crime Unit put it in its report in March, that consumers often don’t realise they’ve been victims of a crime. “In all but the most obvious scenarios, recognising that a food product is not what it says it is can be almost impossible for the consumer,” the FSA report said. “If food criminality is well executed, it is unlikely to be detected at all at the point of consumption.”

All the more reason, therefore, to ensure food crime remains top of consumers’ minds. Savvy, well-informed shoppers who ask tough questions of the food they buy can make a real difference to how that food is made, bought and traded – particularly as industry collaboration on crime isn’t quite yet where it ought to be.

“We all face daily decisions that weigh up perceived quality against its affordability, and we make those decisions not just for ourselves but our kids and loved ones,” says the musical’s director, Graeme Rose. “We scan the list of ingredients on packaging, and put our faith in our instinct or habit. But if a frozen pizza contains as many as 35 different ingredients from 60 different countries, how truly daunting is the task of monitoring the provenance of the food we consume? Faced with the obsessive scrutiny of sources and contents, it might seem a simpler choice to remain ignorant.”

Of course, the musical tries to persuade its audience they shouldn’t settle for that choice. Its message is simple yet powerful : consumers have to realise they, too, have an important part to play in ensuring the food we all eat is what it purports to be.

I say: Encore!