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''Waiter, there's a fish in my glass" sounds very like the opening line to a rather poor, well-worn joke. But there's more than a touch of realism, as opposed to surrealism, about it, as Geoff Baker is more than willing to explain. And it's certainly no joke.

A fine claret with a distinctive whiff of haddock"

            Because I am very stupid and I smoke cigarettes the British Government sends me little messages on the sides of my Marlboro packets.
            In this way I am reliably informed that tobacco seriously damages my health, causes cancer and heart disease and, I note from the pack on the table before me, kills me.
            That's OK, and whilst I wish they might be a little more adventurous with their warnings, like printing "You are an exceptionally foolish man" or "Go on, have a smoke, jerk" - at least I get the message. I think this is fair - they've warned me, I've noted the warning and made my choice. Fair enough.
            I also drink alcohol and I am a vegetarian, but do I get warned by labels that these two choices may be incompatible? Not a whisper.
            I'm not talking here about the fact that alcohol wrecks my liver, ruins my heart, ups my blood pressure and makes me a very unpleasant person. I know all that. No, I'm talking about this here fish in my glass.
            That's right, fish. To my complete and abject horror I have recently discovered that the wine and beer that I drink may very well contain bits of some dead little fishy. Nobody tells you that on those wine tastings on the TV food programmes, do they? They sniff at the bubbling beads winking at the brim and they say "Oh, very plummy" or "A touch of raspberry" or "Rather woody".
            They don't say "A fine claret with a distinctive whiff of haddock" or "Vintage stuff, must have come in with the herring fleet".
            Well they bloody well ought to say this because that's what's going on. In possibly the worst discovery of my life I have just learnt that brewers and whatever people who make wine are called are quietly putting something called isinglass into their bottles and casks.
            Isinglass is a fining - that is, it's a substance used to remove the sediment and cloudiness from your booze to make it appear all clear and appealing. Unfortunately, isinglass is obtained by ripping the swim bladder out of a fish.
            As a vegetarian and a drinker, I find this disturbing. It's not just that they're killing fish for my Chianti (or whatever) that upsets me. That's bad enough. It's the fact that they are deliberately not telling me that my ruby red glass of cheer has a trout's private parts in it.
            I don't know about you, but if I was in the supermarket looking for wine (as I almost incessantly am) and I picked up a bottle that said "Warning: this wine contains trout's genitalia" then, in all probability, I wouldn't buy it.
            They, the wine-makers, know this. That's why they don't label their bottles to reveal all the ingredients. Profits would plummet if they did.
            Well, I think that they should. I think there should be full and explanatory labelling on all products. And it's not just the bladders and balls I'm bothered about. Apparently, various vineyards don't only use isinglass to clarify their wallop - some of them also use chitin, which is crushed up crab and shrimp shells, and some even use dried blood.
            The problem is - we don't know who's doing it. Because it is not required of the wine-makers to explain what's in the bottle they can go on putting in all sorts of muck in their vino, and vegetarians haven't got a clue what's safe to drink and what isn't.
            Actually, this is not strictly true (little that I write is), for I did come across a bottle of vegetarian wine in Safeway the other day - considerately, its label explained that it contained no fish bladders, blood nor anything else so horrid - and it may be that there are other perfectly wonderful bottles of wine and beer out there that taste delicious and are utterly animal-friendly, but, as I said, I don't know which ones they are because they won't tell me.
            Now you may think all of this is unimportant, and that it's about time that this sodden old publicist was weaned off the bottle, and many would agree with you. But this labelling business has wider consequences than my dispomania.
            As long as food and drink labelling is allowed to remain unchecked we just do not know what we are taking into our bodies. The food and drink manufacturers of this world may say that this is nonsense and that they do label ingredients. They may also argue that, on occasion, they do clearly state that this or that beer contains isinglass and this or that dessert contains gelatine. So they're covered. (For the foil dirty lowdown on gelatine check out CS67.)
            But c'mon guys. I might have been born at night but it wasn't last night. Most people don't know what isinglass or chitin or gelatine is. That's my point. It's all very well to admit to putting bits of dead animal in a product, but if your admission is couched in terms that your average man or woman in the street or shopping aisle doesn't immediately understand, you may as well write your warning in Sanskrit.
            I play with words for a living. I know how the use of one verb instead of another can mean the same but paint a different image, and I know - or rather I suspect - that the reason these ingredients are given a technical name rather than their plain readily-understood name is because if the customer realised what was in it he or she wouldn't buy it.
            Take gelatine. If you make jelly or jello and you tell your potential buyer "This packet contains gelatine" they might think "That sounds OK, it's a nice enough sounding word, I'll buy it."
            But if, instead of saying "gelatine", the label said "contains cow/horse bones and tendons" I think jelly/jello sales would fall through the floor.
            I'm telling you all this because, for vegetarians, things are going to get worse. Have you heard about the tomato that contains fish?
            I'm serious. In the USA right now people are experimenting with growing tomatoes using fish. Flounder, actually.
            Some bright spark has discovered that if you inject flounder genes into a tomato on the vine it will become frost resistant and so arrive at your supermarket all red and plump and appetising. Fish genes, it seems, improve the shelf life of the tomato, which means it won't go mushy so soon.
            Now, I know I'm fussy, but I don't want a bloody fish in my salad or pasta sauce, and what really irritates me is that I am reliably informed that companies involved in this genetic engineering are against clear and precise food labelling because they realise their meddling might deter shoppers.
            If I was some Dr Frankenstein of the food world I too would realise that. I would realise that telling the blunt truth would damage my sales. At the very least, I'd invent some word that stood for fish genes that I could use in the labelling. Better still, I'd want to keep quiet about it.
            But I hope that you won't keep quiet about it. I hope that you'll write to your MP or Congressman and demand that, in the future, all food and drink is labelled in easily understood words that will warn us and other Veggies that, sometimes, our food is not as kind a we drink. I mean think.