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Does the return of the hamburger signal a happy meal?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 15:46 UK time, Friday, 3 June 2011

Consider the hamburger, the most demonised food on the planet. So often it’s used as shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the way we eat: soybeans used to feed cattle grown on land that was once rainforest, heating up the world so that we can get our £1.49 fix; and then all that grain and protein shovelled into animals that are designed to eat grass. It does them no good, contributing to the development of dangerous forms of E.coli in animals that have - when meat’s been contaminated in slaughter houses - led to severe food poisoning. Not to mention the millions of hectares of land that could be used to grow food directly for us. And at the end of it all when the patties hit the high street, they’re served up on white squishy buns with enough sugary, fatty gloop to raise your blood sugar levels. So should we give up the hamburger?

Burger

Image credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Well, not quite. The key is the meat. It’s hard to make an argument that animals reared as described above, are anything but a disaster. There’s a lot of cash in it for fast-food chains, corporate farms and the global grain trading companies, but the meat itself has few virtues: mostly it lacks taste - though McDonalds in the UK has broken with this tradition and are now using only British and Irish beef. But what if hamburgers became a treat again? That’s the idea behind a young, informal movement that sets up get-togethers to eat burgers made from grass-fed British beef from traditional breeds. 

In this week’s Food Programme, I went to one of them: a Burger Monday pop-up in what during the day is a greasy spoon caff in East London. The chefs were young and taking a night off from working in their normal, far-grander restaurants, the young crowd were keen and the hamburgers were a revelation; nothing fancy, just great meat in a well made bun. But the meat came from animals produced on farms where beef production is just one part of a more complex mixed farming system. How crucial that is became clear as we talked in the programme to farmer Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, and Colin Tudge whose book Good Food for Everyone Forever makes the case for what he calls Real Farming.  Both of them argue that we need meat - nothing else can be grown on the uplands that make up 40 per cent of the land mass of the UK, but that meat has to be almost the by-product of the sort of farming that’s environmentally benign, is based on good animal welfare and that produces meat with real taste and great nutritional value. Meat, in fact, like the stuff that went into our Burger Monday burgers - not £1.49, but a treat worth saving up for. 

Sheila Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

Are you turned off by takeaway burgers? Or are you enjoying your own burgeoning burger revolution? Let us know...

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