VEGA News Item

Michael Bateman, 1932 to 2006. A Real Bread Winner. - 19/04/2006
Michael died a month before Easter after a 2-year decline as a result of an accident on crossing a road. He had been The Independent on Sunday’s Reviews Editor for over a decade and on Easter Sunday the paper published a special appreciation. Several obituaries had appeared a week or two before.
Michael deserves special mention from VEGA, for he and his team at the Sunday Times saw the potential in the Campaign for Real Bread (CAMREB), which was one of VEGA’s predecessors, then working in the Vegetarian Society, as volunteers and as paid staff, had launched as an important educative offshoot of the group’s more ambitious and longterm Green Plan to direct research into reforms in farming, food, health, and the land and in the corollaries in animal welfare and environmental issues. The Green Plan and CAMREB were launched just 30 years ago in the Society’s London offices – now, alas, closed. The intentions and activities represented hopes for an enterprising Food Standards Agency, which was set up 6 years ago; it is tackling now issues informing elements of the Green Plan and CAMREB.

Slices of History
VEGA’s campaigners of 30 or 40 years ago had been exercised with others, including reformers such as Caroline Walker, Geoffrey Cannon, and Tim Lang and their collaborators, and the authors of reports of authorities such as the Royal College of Physicians on the failings of the farmers and food industry to serve the British public – and especially school children and the poor – with choices of wholesome diets unspoilt by profligate use of adulterating ingredients and processes and all the evidence of meretriciously cheap food polices.

Bread and cereals were at the centre of the concerns and with parallel interests in the Karelia Project in Finland. The agronomic significance reached back to the Corn Laws of the 19th century, wartime experiences with the national loaf, and post-war reactions to the irksome restraints of austerity, and with the Labour government’s Agriculture Act, which was informed by “never-again” incentives for sustainability that would keep Britain’s supplies of staples inviolate against hostile blockades. The tide was also running strongly in favour of perceived benefits of dietary fibre, none of which derived from meat, fish, dairy-products or eggs. Awakening in starch chemistry and the complications now recognized in glycemic indexes (and loads) added interest in the various merits of different cereals and their components in food-production (and brewing). Comparisons were being made of the nutritive values of the packet and its content of cornflakes (at least, for rats) and the veggie experiences with muesli and “Oslo breakfast” asserted a salutary change from greasy bacon and eggs to offerings nearer the aims of the FSA’s 5-a-days.

Hardly had a Sunday Times columnist dismissed the veggie mission as “the lost cause since the flat earth” than the little group in the London office of the Vegetarian Society were overwhelmed with calls from the media and specialist publications such as Farmers Weekly for more information. The BBC’s Jimmy Young radio program clamoured for information, the main TV News program, with only a few hours to go, demanded a full Green Plan meal, for which members of the Vegetarian Society’s Cookery Section, including Rose Elliot, volunteered their services. These activities were augmented by offers of recipes, cookery and bread-making demos, and judging of contests and appraisals of knocking back, crumb, and flying tops – not to say taste and texture – calling for appraisals by further experts whom the Vegetarian Society’s groups could muster, Jill Davies, now a Professor at South Bank University, and Jane Griffin, who is now a nutritional consultant on the diets of British athletes, as well as being a journalist, volunteered their services. These collaborations extended to preparations of Dayplans for weekly menus, nutritionally-assessed for veggie diets, both the real McCoy and lacto-ovo versions.

Other adventitious factors favored CAMREB particularly. A strike in the baking industry demanded recipes for home baking – no journo at the time was without one of ours. Stocks of flours in the shops ran out as fast as the leaflets. All these experiences aroused informed discussions of strong and weak flours, hard and soft wheats, protein and fibre contents, durum wheats and pasta, sourdough breads, unleavened breads and biscuits, and yeasts. The London group enjoyed the cooperation of two traditional bakeries: Cranks, who baked just off Carnaby Street for the restaurants and for off-sales, and Goswell’s, baking for specialist markets, such as Jewish.

Research and Development
Jill Davies was working with Professor Dickerson, of Surrey University, towards a PhD on bowel function, for which vegetarians were enlisted as volunteers in studies of “hi-fi” diets and the consequences for health. Several other groups were also involved, at Oxford and Cambridge universities and in the pharmaceutical industry (Glaxo). This research entailed heroic “going through the motions”, studies on gut flora, and analyses of wind, “up and down”. Transit times and stool weights were the bread and butter of the results, for which veterinary parallels abounded. James Erlichman, Consumer Affairs Correspondent of the
, amiably interpreted these theses on feces for readers.

Michael Bateman was an early member of the fibre-writers’ guild. One of our Trustees remembers Michael’s horror when he was taken to one of Professor Birkett’s lectures – Professor Birkett, FRS, no less – at which a gallery of slides depicted the products left from the gastronomic delights Michael was used to describe. Our President, Dr Conrad Latto, was no less effective with his slides of “impacted masses”, removal of which was stock-in-trade in his role as Chief Surgeon at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and the constipated citizens whose dietary errors at the foregut he had to relieve at the nether end. “Britain is becoming a nation of constipated, toothless fatties” was a Green Plan/CAMREB warning that Fleet Street seized on, and it surfaced in the
Wall Street Journal
, where the North American context might have been even more relevant.

Michael reacted to the barren aisles stacked high with supermarket loss-leader factory-produced Mother’s Shame (the CAMREB equivalent of Watney’s Red Barrel to CAMRA) by swinging the Sunday Times team into the cause of artisanal production and variety. They took CAMREB over for a year. With his wife, he produced the Sunday Times Book of Bread, which is still on sale and serves as a fine memorial to his enterprise and journalistic flair. He didn’t actually launch CAMREB, as is often stated, but he invigorated it with a verve that he displayed in so many cookery issues that he followed through with much success.

Lessons for the Food Standards Agency
Did CAMREB achieve its purpose? It raised some appreciation of the bakers’ and farmers’ acceptance of breeding short-strawed, lodging resistant British wheats suitable for mass-production of loaves with some character by factory production using the Chorley Wood process, overcoming the reluctance of traditional bakers to work nights to deliver fresh-baked and rapidly-staling bread for breakfast. The Campaign and the Book prompted competition among the retail chains for variety in productions and composition of breads; and it was years ahead of the FSA in alerting the public, especially by labelling, of the sodium (salt) content of bread (and particularly of Marmite soldiers) and of the amount and type of fat used in the mixtures to make the doughs. (Cranks breads were sold in grease-proof paper bags). It was disappointing to learn in the last Open FSA Council meeting that it was a revelation to some of the members that much of the bread sold in the UK is fortified with sources of calcium and iron and the B-vitamins thiamin and niacin; nor was there much evidence that the members scrutinized the labels for the information required by the careful consumer (who deserves still more).

The Independent on Sunday’s Food for Thought states that “Michael Bateman had an opinion on everything” and cited “a few tasty morsels”, among which are:

“I prepared a pre-Christmas repast one year (using a wonderful Prue Leith recipe, boned turkey stuffed with ham, removing last-minute pressures on carving). The balancing act of bringing turkey, potatoes, sprouts, and gravy to perfection had been all but achieved, when I was alerted to the presence of 3 vegetarians. Only a fool would rush out to the nearest shop to buy a dozen eggs to make omelets while the rest of the meal spoiled” 1995.

Beef Crisis
“Intensive farming of beef, pigs, and poultry produces cheap food, but at what cost? It doesn’t taste better, that’s for sure. People are feeling increasing contempt for a culture that relies on animals, raised in cramped inhuman conditions, fed a diet enriched with processed excrement. The public has little idea of the shape of the meat industry and it hasn’t been in most retailer’s interests to inform them – least of all those selling cow for sausages, pies, and other processed meats” 1996.

It is disappointing that he didn’t acknowledge the cost to the animals’ welfare in the follies of cheap food, especially when the pictures of the stumbling dairy cows were fresh in the public’s mind in 1996 and cried out for a compassionate explanation. We have to recognise that the Green Plan’s message, although 2 decades before the foregoing statement but illustrated nonetheless with the zoonotic miseries of salmonellosis, has still to be vigorously expounded and exemplified by representation of “green” policies. CAMREB arrived at a time when looking for diversification into health foods and advance from the thraldom of pile-it-high and sell-it-quick policies were breaking out. Together with its involvement in Beauty Without Cruelty enterprises and adoption of Body Shop chains and then by supermarkets vaunting cruelty-free credentials, the veggie cause has gained a status well beyond flat earthism. That leverage was frittered away by mistakes by the Vegetarian and Vegan societies and by sluggishness in an unenterprising health-food market, as we have commented before.

The McCartney range, which has been owned for the last 6 years by Heinz, is the next veggie name to join the exodus into the hands of general brands such as Premier Foods. Heinz are expected to sell the McCartney range, with other frozen foods lines, to Nestlé, as consumers turn to chilled, ready-prepared microwave meals in the belief that they are healthier. The Birds Eye range, whose sales recently dropped by 13%, is being sold by Unilever, revealing another example of this trend. Nestle owns 50% of Ossem, an Israeli company, whose subsidiary, Tivall, is understood to be preparing an offer for the McCartney range. Tivall already sells similar products to British chains of retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, and Tesco. Veggie foods, even those “approved”, appear increasingly to be unimaginative dumping grounds for co-products and by-products form the dairy and poultry industries. However, there is some hope: supermarkets are introducing new lines of organic, microwaveable ready meals that are solidly free from meat, milk, eggs and fish – and cruelty. What a pity Michael Bateman hasn’t lived to review their suitability for those veggie strangers at his gate.  

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