Archive for the ‘Ethical living’ Category

Steenbergs Extracts and Flower Waters now registered with Vegan Society

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

We’ve successfully registered Steenbergs’ extracts and flower waters with The Vegan Society. This is the start of a process that will see Steenbergs include vegan branding into our bakery range over the next few months.

As part of this, we’ve delisted anything that is not vegan within the range of Steenbergs-branded products. So, for example, all the baking decorations have been delisted, because some included shellac and others carmines, while milky oolong has been removed because it contained milk flavour.

We feel this tidies up what Steenbergs does, so that we can now say Steenbergs’ products are animal-free, vegetarian and vegan. Not all are registered (in fact most aren’t) but we’ll work on it over the next few years.

We’ve still got to review non-Steenbergs products and what we’re doing with them…but that’s for another month.

Update 26/1/2017: Following a review of branded products on www.steenbergs.co.uk, we are delisting the Fish4Ever range of fish and seafood, and the Pukka ghee.  This will mean that by mid-year (when these have sold through) Steenbergs will be a strictly vegan brand across all its activities.

Steenbergs Becomes Kosher Certified

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

We’ve been working during the last few years on upping our game in our certifications.  It’s alright saying that Steenbergs is good at this and that, but quite another thing to prove it.

In 2016, we began working on both halal and kosher certification.  So far, we have completed kosher certification with the London Beth Din (Kosher London Beth Din) – finalised on 16 December and confirmed 3 January 2017.

After an audit visit and lot of paper trails to be proved, this has enabled over 250 products to achieve kosher certification.  At the start, we won’t have any logo showing that our products are kosher certified, but as new labels are printed we will be incorporating the KLBD logo for certified lines.  This will begin with a rebranding of the organic extracts range in the first half of 2017.

Now, we’ve started on halal certification with Halal Certification Europe.  Because of a different methodology , it means that only those products we blend can be certified and so it will be a much, much shorter list.

At Steenbergs, the key theme is that we must be able to demonstrate that we both appreciate and are addressing customer’s differing requirements for Steenbergs herb, spice and tea products.  This is not only about environmental (Organic) and social (Fairtrade; SEDEX), but also about religious and other ethical factors.

We will address vegan and/or vegetarian in the near future, but have slightly put that to the back of the queue because Steenbergs’ products are plant-based and we seek (so far as possible) to ensure no animal products are used in fertilisers.

Chemical Analysis of Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

We are often asked quite detailed technical questions about Steenbergs’ organic rose water.  In particular:

  • What type of water is used? Tap water
  • Is the water distilled water? Yes
  • Does the water contain pesticides or heavy metals? No
Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Firstly, the rose water is organic and distilled from organic rose petals picked and processed in the Rose Valley of Bulgaria.  It is certified as organic by Ceres, a German certification agency.  So it is grown and processed in an organic way, however that (as many customers keep telling me) does not preclude contamination from other surrounding farmland, so see below.

Secondly, on the water itself, the water used is standard potable water, i.e. it’s not borehole water or the like, but a “tap water” and this meets EU government guidelines on drinking water.

However, in the process, the water is distilled through a double water-vapour distillation process – the first is a standard distillation through a still, and the second runs the distillate a second time but this time through a cohabation column.  So in answer to the question, the water in the rose water is distilled.

This second distillation concentrates the flavour by roughly ten times, and is called “cohabation” – the rose oil tends to float on the top of the distillate so this second distillation dissolves more of this floral flavour into Steenbergs rose water.  For reference: 1.4kg of fresh rose petals yields 1kg of rose water.

Thirdly, as for the possibility for contamination of the water, our most recent tests of the organic rose water are as below and they contain no pesticides, agrochemicals and the levels of heavy metals are well within guidelines:

  Steenbergs Organic Rose Water UK Drinking Water Standards What standard used?
Pesticides Not detected 0.5 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
Agrochemicals:
  Nitrates 0.4 mg/l 50 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Nitrites <0.01 mg/l 0.50 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
Plant treatments:
  Chlorates <2 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Recommendation 2015/682
  Perchlorates <0.5 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Recommendation 2015/682
Metals/heavy metals:
  Aluminium <2 µg/l <200 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Arsenic 1.40 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Cadmium 0.01 µg/l <5 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Copper 0.09 mg/l <2 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Iron 37.06 µg/l <200 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Lead 5.62 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Manganese 4.46 µg/l <50 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Molybdenum <0.03 µg/l No standard
  Nickel 4.05 µg/l <20 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Selenium 0.48 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Zinc 191.14 µg/l No standard*

*there is a complex proposed standard that proposes 10.9 bioavailable plus Ambient Background Concentration (μg/l) dissolved that I really don’t understand, while Australia and Canada have limits of 3 – 5 mg/l (5000 µg/l).

Working organically with Abel & Cole for 10 years

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Started 27 years ago, with the vision of supplying ethically sourced, high quality food and drink to people who care about the provenance of what they eat, Abel & Cole has gone from strength to strength.  It now delivers boxes of fruit and veg as well as organic milk, bread, eggs and meat to many parts of the country.  They deliver as far north as York, but just use the postcode finder on their website to check whether they deliver to your door: http://www.abelandcole.co.uk/help/faqMedium Everyday Easy Fruit & Veg Box

“It all started with a chap named Keith and a bag of spuds in 1988. He realised the huge benefits of going organic and never looked back. In fact, we still get veg from the farm where Keith’s first organic spuds came from”, say Abel & Cole.

Steenbergs and Abel & Cole share a common passion for all things organic. Both believe that organic farming is best for the environment, the wildlife and ultimately our own diets. Abel & Cole’s mantra is ‘grow slow’, which is an ethos shared by Steenbergs and the small independent producers that they use all around the world.

Steenbergs has been organic since it was founded in 2003 by husband and wife team Axel & Sophie Steenberg.  Their vision of supplying organic herbs and spices also led to them becoming Fairtrade for tea in 2004 and ultimately being the pioneers for the first Fairtrade spices into the UK in 2005.

“We’ve been working with Abel & Cole for over a decade,” says Axel.  “We started off supplying  small amounts of organic spices, but have recently added mini organic spice jars to their recipe boxes, and are now supplying our regular spice jars, vanilla extract and pods for sale in Abel & Cole’s Grocery Pantry.” http://www.abelandcole.co.uk/groceries/pantry/dried-herbs-spicesabel & cole recipe box

Abel & Cole use Steenbergs spice jars in the recipe boxes to add flavour and excitement to their recipes. To make the most of the flavoursome seasonal lettuces available at the moment, why not try Abel & Cole’s recipes for courgette falafel with peanut dip, spiced up with Steenbergs garam masala and coriander seeds? http://www.abelandcole.co.uk/recipes/courgette-falafels-peanut-dip

Look out for our Abel & Cole competition coming up this month, with the chance for one lucky winner to win a month’s worth of veg boxes (a total of 4 of any size). A great way to make sure you have your 5-a-day!

abel_cole_logo_may-2015 - ONLINE

Is there aluminium in bicarbonate of soda?

Friday, December 25th, 2015

Fairly frequently, we are asked “is Steenbergs bicarbonate of soda aluminium free?”

In short, yes it is aluminium-free, as well as gluten-free, and Steenbergs organic baking powder is vegan and phosphate-free, while the non-organic baking powder is vegan with corn flour and free of added aluminium.

It’s a weird one this, because bicarbonate of soda is aluminium free and always has been.  But a whole lot of discussion seems to have arisen around finding aluminium free baking sodas, and describing the sins of those products that don’t state whether they are aluminium free.

To an extent, people are correct to have concerns, because aluminium is suggested as being linked to neurological disorders because it is a neurotoxin. But initial data that had suggested links to Alzheimer’s have not been proven and the Alzheimer’s Society states “importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that aluminium exposure increases your risk of dementia”.  The best information I could find on aluminium from food and other consumer products is the FAQ at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

As far as I can tell, the story started in America when Bob’s Red Mill Baking Soda began to market a mined bicarbonate of soda as being aluminium free (they don’t do this anymore and only show “aluminium-free” on their baking powder).  So a myth arose that anything that did not state “aluminium-free” on the label must de facto contain aluminium.  In fact, bicarbonate of soda simply does not contain aluminium, whether mined or chemically synthesised, and so long as it is 100% pure bicarbonate of soda never has done.

I hope that clarifies things.

Where it seems the concern arose was in a misunderstanding – baking powders can sometimes include aluminium-based chemicals, but these are different from baking soda (American term used specifically), i.e. baking soda was mistaken for baking powder.  So customers should look out for aluminium-free baking powder, but this never seems to be question that’s asked online.

We do test Steenbergs bicarbonate of soda and Steenbergs baking powder for presence of aluminium using laboratories.  And we, also, test within Steenbergs for gluten, even if we don’t make any declarations on this.  Both the bicarbonate of soda and baking powder came up negative for gluten (not detected at 5ppm, i.e. less than 5mg/kg) when I tested the current batches for this blog.

However, sometimes small amounts of aluminium seem to get into baking powder.  This must come in with the cornflour or other carrier in the baking powder because no aluminium chemicals have been used in the products – I have checked a few products out there and small amounts seem to sneak in (ranging up to 100ppm), plus I have spoken with manufacturers and they say the same.  (Note: some “aluminium free” baking powders state “no added aluminium” or that no sodium aluminium sulphate is included in the mix which arguably is different; in general there is no defined level for which something is “aluminium free”).

So neither Steenbergs baking powder nor bicarbonate of soda (a.k.a. baking soda) contain added aluminium and gluten and are vegan, plus our organic baking powder is, also, vegan, phosphate-free, GMO free, organic.

Audio Interview from CareerFarm: Building an organic spice business committed to fairtrade and the environment with Axel Steenberg

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I recently did this phone interview with Jane Barrett of The Career Farm, which can be found at Jane’s Blog or listen below:

My Thoughts on Wages of Tea Pickers in India

Saturday, September 26th, 2015
Tea Picking In Darjeeling

Tea Plucker in Darjeeling, India

I have prevaricated about writing about the recent BBC investigation into conditions on some Assam tea estates, but felt that I really had to write something.  I did give a 2 minute response on BBC Radio York, but that was a tongue-tied minute or two.

I was dismayed by the conditions and experiences of tea workers shown in File on Four’s investigation.  But I was not surprised.  We (that’s everybody) all know, deep down, that tea is a product founded during colonialism and continued under unequal power relations.

Isn’t that why Fairtrade was started in the first place? Isn’t that part of the rationale behind the Ethical Tea Partnership, Tea2030 and the Rainforest Alliance?  Doesn’t Oxfam campaign on policies of unfair pay, unequal power and poor conditions within the tea industry all the time?

Yet tea remains an industry dominated by multi-national corporations, many with their own plantations – Twinings and Fortnum & Mason by the Weston Family; Lipton and PG Tips by Unilever; and Tea Pigs and Tetley Tea by Tata and so on.

However, while Oxfam released a report on wages in the tea industry in 2013, not much seems to have happened since.  Tea workers in Assam earned INR 115 versus a minimum wage of INR 177 (BBC, 2015), as against INR 89 and INR 159 respectively in 2012 (Ethical Consumer, 2013).  I think the ideas of the tea industry are sensible but far too gently paced, and the tea majors could work much quicker to transform the social conditions of the tea industry.  Tea2030 includes all the key UK players, so it is not as if they don’t have the power nor the management know-how to undertake change?

I must admit to a feeling of powerlessness ourselves . Firstly, as a micro-tea business, we sell less tea than your average Starbucks outlet.  So we must rely on the social standards set by outside agencies when buying our teas – Fairtrade, Organic and UTZ.  And I did naively think that by buying mainly Fairtrade teas we would be automatically protected from low wages, but this only requires a minimum wage to be paid with the commitment to move towards a living wage.  But what we don’t want, or expect to be providing, is certified poverty through Steenbergs-branded products.

So I have double-checked wages, conditions and child labour at the main suppliers of the teas we buy tea; these are summarised below.  We have been assured that no children are employed in any of the plantations, and that Indian law requires that no-one under 18 years old can be employed on plantations.

Tables on (i) Wages at Tea Plantations from which Steenbergs sources its main teas; (ii) Social conditions at those tea plantations

Analysis of Daily Pay Rates At Indian And Sri Lankan Tea Estates In 2015

Table describing social and environmental conditions at certian tea estates in India and Sri Lanka

It is up to us to address these issues by how we (in Britain, Europe and the USA) trade.  We must be mindful of that the rules and laws in India, for example, are for them to determine rather than for us to seek to impose any neo-colonial views onto them from outside.Which begs the questions: (i) why were 14 year olds working on Assam tea plantations if the law is no-one below 18 years old can work.  I accept that extreme poverty was the underlying reason given, which relates back to the inadequacy of wages paid and insufficient safety nets when wage-earners become ill or incapacitated; (ii) how are wages calculated?; (iii) where are the unions to protect the workers on  the tea estates in the BBC report?

My suspicions are as follows:

  • Minimum wages for plantation workers are lower than normal workers because they are meant to be provided with housing and ancillary housing-related and social benefits. However, these social benefits are expected to be on top of the minimum wage rather than deducted from it.  This means that some workers are being hit twice, i.e. by a lower minimum wage then having benefits-in-kind deducted, meaning very little cash is actually earned.
  • Many of the workers are regarded as itinerant, casual or whatever you wish to call them, so perhaps they do not have the benefit of trade union representation. Perhaps worryingly pickers are so poor that they cannot pay the unions anything, so fall even outside their interests.  It really would be worrying if workers could be regarded so poor that they were not getting union representation on a pro bono basis.  Unions are important to act as a bulwark against potentially stronger interests of the tea owners.
  • There is no living wage calculated for tea workers. While I accept that Britain is only just moving to a living wage in 2016, why has neither Fairtrade nor the Ethical Tea Partnership come up with a figure for a living wage?  This would at least underpin any criticism of pay in the sector.  Even saying that all pluckers must be paid the minimum wage in cash without deductions and all benefits to be on top would be a big protection.  Much of the issue seems to lie with how the benefits are valued – so a house is worth so many rupees, but who values it? and what value does it have without a working toilet, no potable water and a leaking roof – little or none?
  • Perhaps we are all guilty of normalising the status quo. Quaint, picturesque pictures of pluckers in local dress are good photos (as above), but like farmers in Africa or Eastern Europe these pretty images hide the poverty and hardship of actually toiling on the land.  Perhaps we feel this is how it is and feel powerless to change the system.  Perhaps we feel disconnected from the pluckers in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, yet we are connected directly to them through what we pay for the tea on retailers’ shelves.  Should we just accept we pay too little for our cuppa?

Overall, I know this is a very complex area, with many nuances, but we should all feel more responsible for how we spend our money and the impacts our purchases can have on those who make the products in China, India and the UK.  We cannot always shrug our shoulders and say it is someone else’s problem.

What we will do in the short term is make sure we ask the right questions of our suppliers, which I admit we have naively not been doing.

So it will not just be questions about the environment, but also about pay, working conditions and union representation, because even if Steenbergs is a relatively powerless micro-business we can at least make do better in making sure our tea comes from sources that seem to be addressing wages and treating their people humanely, seriously and responsibly.

Autumnal Colours In North Yorkshire

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

I have always liked autumn.  The weather is cooler than summer, or at least in theory – this year’s been a washout.

But I also like harvest time and autumnal colours.  The corn is in from most fields around us, the apples are turning a russet colour and the elderberries are a deep black, hanging heavy in the hedgerows, having given us heady elder flowers at mid summer.  Brambles all dark and healthy.

Then in the garden, there is the late yellows of rudbeckia and the purples of sea hollies.

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Apple ripening in our garden

Apple ripening in our garden

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Purple colours of sea holly

Purple colours of sea holly

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Back to school this month, so we’re back to smoothies to kick start the day.

The base tends to be the same – an almond and coconut milk, banana and chai spices mix.  To this, I add flax seeds, almond butter or tahini, then some superfood like acai  or maca powder.  For sweetener, I like maple syrup, with honey or agave as alternatives.

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

Recently though, I have switched to using dates instead of those sweeteners.  I like it – the smoothie comes out tasting less obviously sweet plus it adds in some fibre.

I do accept the arguments against dates as an alternative to sugar, but I am using them here as a source of sugar so I think it’s fine.

Is it better than the other sugar alternatives – probably no.  If you want a low sugar version drop the banana and dates, then add some vanilla powder. The sugar-free version is delicious as well, but not as sweet.

Date and Masala Chai Smoothie

100ml almond milk
100ml coconut milk
1 chopped banana
1 tbsp almond butter
1 tbsp flax seeds
½-1 tsp chai masala spices
1 tsp maca powder
2-3 dates, ideally Medjool

Simple combine all the ingredients into a blender.  Whizz until smooth, then enjoy.

Quick Quinoa And Halloumi Salad – Great Picnic Food

Friday, September 4th, 2015
Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds, Olives And Parsley

Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds, Olives And Parsley

Sophie recently been reminded of quinoa and a salad I made for a picnic earlier this summer.  We originally ate it together with several other salads and a whole array of other cold foods.

This quinoa salad has a lovely crunch and warm, nutty taste, which is balanced by the fresh flavours of the herbs and salad leaves.  Then there is the pleasant sourness and acidity from the olives, pomegranate seeds and salad dressing.

But perhaps the two things I like the best – firstly, it is ridiculously simple to make; and secondly it looks so very colourful from the multicoloured quinoa through to the greens of mint and parsley and the rich reds of the pomegranate seeds.

Then apparently it is very healthy – good for blood sugar levels and full of vitamins, especially vitamin B.

So taking the subtle hint, I made it again.

Quinoa Salad With Pomegranate Seeds and Halloumi Cheese

100g organic quinoa
2 tbsp black olives, pitted and chopped
3 tbsp pomegranate seeds
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
15 leaves fresh garden mint
10 – 15 salad leaves (ideally including some purples)
2 tbsp organic olive oil
1 tbsp organic lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
Pinch organic cracked black pepper

Rinse the organic quinoa thoroughly (this removes the soapiness that can sometimes happen when making quinoa).  Add 200ml water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, drain and leave to cool.

Place the quinoa in a mixing bowl or salad bowl.  Add the chopped olives, pomegranate seeds, parsley, mint and salad leaves and mix together.

Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and black pepper to form an emulsion.  Pour over the quinoa salad and toss.

Grill the halloumi cheese slices until golden brown, tear in half and mix into the salad.