Food Education Trust

It's all about the money

February 2013

I have been thinking for some days about what the answer is to all the issues thrown up by the horse meat scandal and I keep coming back to the one thought

We must become our own food processors

In other words we must make the majority of the food we consume ourselves. This is going to be an uncomfortable idea for a lot of people to accept as we have over the last 30 years changed our eating habits beyond recognition. A large amount of us now rely on third parties to prepare our meals and we are willing to spend less and less time in the kitchen. I listened with interest to a radio show the other day when one of the contributors suggested that we should all really be making our own spaghetti bolognaise and not buying pre prepared bolognaise. The other contributor was incredulous that this could even be suggested. The unpalatable truth is that we are going to have to change and we are going to have to return to a more traditional way of feeding ourselves and our families. Don’t despair it can be done gradually and there are up sides to this, the biggest one being that we should as a result live healthier lives. For some years the statistics have been stacking up to show that the diet the Western population has so willingly taken to it’s table is actually killing a vast number of this population. The diet with its heavy reliance on processed food and meat, with lots of added fat and sugar and not enough fruit and vegetables is sending many of us to hospital with heart disease, obesity issues and cancer.

One of the saddest things about the change that we have gradually made to our eating and cooking habits is that we have been encouraged to do it by the powerful and wealthy food manufacturing industry in the West . But what’s wrong with this? Business has to make money and the industry provides jobs and prosperity to the country. There are two major things wrong with this. Firstly, a matter of trust. If someone else is going to make the food that I put into my body then I need to trust that they will put my health and wellbeing above the priority of their profit margins. When I was growing up we used to trust our food suppliers and supermarkets. I used to wave at Sainsbury lorry drivers. Our food suppliers were, more or less then, the farmers of the UK and the supermarkets were the places where those farmers sold their goods. The biggest supermarket in my home town had three aisles. You started at the fruit and vegetables, there were a few breakfast cereals and biscuits in the middle. The dairy was at the far end and you ended by the beer and the asti spumante. Whether the change started with the microwave, more women going out to work or a general influence from America who knows for sure, but we are now in a situation where we have a multi-billion pound food manufacturing industry very keen for us to buy as much manufactured food as we can fit in our fridges and then, more often than not, in our bins by the end of the week. So I am afraid this massive industry has too much to lose to start taking our health and wellbeing into account. They will get away with what they can as long as the money keeps rolling in. The hydrogenated fat issue was a good example of this. Health concerns about hydrogenated fats in ready meals, cake and biscuits had been rumbling on for some years. Consumers started to become concerned, as a result, and started to express their opinion on the matter through their spending. Suddenly the supermarkets reacted, seeing a possible chink in their armour, and decided to tell us that they were going to take hydrogenated fats out of their ready meals, because they cared about us the consumer. They still, however, sell cakes , doughnuts and biscuits with hydrogenated fats as an ingredient so they don’t care that much. In Scandinavia governments have placed an outright ban on the use of such fats in manufactured foods as they consider them toxic. There is no scientist that will disagree in the UK but the food industry is so powerful that the government refuses to act. Meanwhile the consumer goes on consuming these fats and the tax payer keeps footing the bill for the consequent detrimental health issues caused.

On the point of trust, the fact that the supermarkets are now seeking to blame the meat processing industry for the horse meat situation is to completely miss the point. If they care about what they are selling us then they should know what is in the food we are buying from them.

The second major thing wrong with this reliance on processed food is the simple one and that is that it is bad for us. It is bad for our bodies and bad for our environment. We have to start eating a more balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables, with some fresh meat and fish, basically eating how our grandmothers and grandfathers ate. Nobody puts it better and more simply than the food journalist Michael Pollen,

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I hesitate after writing that though. Michael Pollen’s rule is simple enough but the shocking truth is that our diet has changed so much over the years that we now have to stop and think about what “food” actually is. If we can at least all agree on one fact and that is this that what is made in a factory 300 miles away, using dubious ingredients and plenty of chemicals is not food. If we can all agree on this then I would feel optimistic about the future of our diets