Last week, BBC2 treated viewers to the spectacle of Professor Brian Cox spitting into a test tube and, with the help of some washing-up liquid and vodka, extracting a sample of DNA containing the genes for brown eyes, floppy hair and a cheeky grin.
(Recent conversations with friends suggest I should, for some readers at least, at this point leave a short pause for reverential contemplation. Meanwhile, everyone else can use the brief interlude to savour Prof. Cox's contrived but memorable phrase: "The chicken is radiating disorder out into the wider universe...".
OK - shall we carry on?)
Now, I know very little about the mechanics of the process, but it did strike me that DNA must be fairly robust stuff to survive all that chemical bombardment and agitation. That being so, what are we to make of the news that 'traces of pig DNA' have been found in foods labelled halal in prisons?
Contrary to the impression given by slick police dramas, DNA cross-contamination must surely be rife in our everyday environment - consider the rapid spread of viral and bacterial infections or the way that pet hair transfers itself to clothing ad infinitum as examples of how traces of material can move around.
And what of the shopper who picks up a leaky pack of bacon in the supermarket and transfers traces of the residue to the trolley handle and everything else he or she touches? Contamination at a microscopic level cannot be entirely ruled out anywhere we go. Common sense suggests that, aside from good hygiene practices, we shouldn't concern ourselves with something so small and inevitable.
But common sense and religion are not always easy bedfellows. An avoidance of certain foods on religious grounds for fear of contamination implies a lack of pragmatism when it comes to accidental contamination at a microscopic level, so it's no surprise that this is a major news story, even though the Qu'ran explicitly states that, if there is no other food available, a Muslim may eat non-halal food; 'If one is forced because there is no other choice, neither craving nor transgressing, there is no sin on him' (Surah 2:173).
And it's not going to help that the 'traces of DNA' - 0.01% by volume, according to Channel 4 - have, in the tabloid headlines, become "Pork found in halal meat" (Mirror) or "Halal meat pies [...] contained pork" (Sun), as if there were large lumps of the stuff lurking within the crust. The media like nothing better than conflict, and, if they continue to fan the flames as hospitals, schools and care homes inevitably enter the fray and tempers rise, they may well have plenty to report.
Given modern methods of food production and the scale of the supply chain, it would be very surprising if some form of cross-contamination were not occurring in the system. Even with a highly conscientious workforce (and the wages paid in the food industry are not conducive to this end), it would be difficult to eliminate completely the traces of previous products handled by the machinery or on the premises.
Since almost any institution now offers a vegetarian option which would meet the requirements of those wishing to avoid pork, it makes little sense to provide halal meat products at public expense as well. In fact, the ideal solution - proposed by Woman on a Raft at Anna Raccoon's post on the matter - would be to make all prison food vegetarian and prepare it on site; cheaper, safer and unlikely to offend anyone's religious or ethical sensibilities*.
We have, as a society, become so accustomed to over-processed food that we have lost sight of the risks posed by every successive part of the process.The real issue here is that food labeling has been shown not to be trustworthy but there is now a very real risk that the religious element of this story will be allowed to fog the issue; there was a real sense of inevitability about this from the moment the horsemeat story broke.
As Prof. Cox's chicken demonstrates, energy degrades with each stage in its separation from its original source. Much the same thing can be said of our food; the challenge now is to ensure the religious issue does not sidetrack those in charge from the importance of reducing the number of processing stages from ingredients to plate.
*Except, perhaps, Jains, though I doubt there are many of them in the UK prison population, what with their strict avoidance of violence and lack of interest in material possessions.
Meanwhile, as the Quiet Man points out at OoL, a convicted prisoner in the UK insisting on his right to halal food has already broken the law of the land and, at least in cases of theft, would probably prefer to be dealt with under our own system of punishment rather than that prescribed by the Qu'ran.