Supermarket sweep?

December 5, 1997


Ingredients: oats, water, heat.

The best porridge is made from pinhead oatmeal, really coarse oatmeal. Put one scoop oatmeal with three scoops water into a pan. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally. Turn off and leave overnight. The next morning, bring slowly to the boil. Enjoy.

Porridge has a special place in our household. My partner's granddaughter's first complete sentence was "Granny, eat your porridge". Understandably, our jaws dropped. Scots take porridge with a pinch of salt, but this is undesirable for your heart. Canadians add fruit. I have skimmed milk. My mother, 85, loves it with honey or treacle and she'll outlive us all.

Scandals from BSE to E.coli have pushed food up the political agenda and prompted questions about who controls what we eat, argues Tim Lang, Britain's first food policy professor. (Below is his porridge recipe).

Twenty-five years ago I decided I was more interested in the intellectual pursuit of food than in social psychology, in which I was then completing a doctorate. Since then this love affair has grown, culminating in my appointment threeyears ago to the first chair of food policy in a British university.

Whereas being a psychologist felt academically constricting, the world of food policy has been a feast of opportunities. I revel in the fact that to understand food we need to grapple with the link between people and food, politics as well as science. Since this relationship constantly changes, the field of study, methods and framework are all up for grabs. We require anthropology as much as agricultural science, cultural studies as well as chemistry.

My mother, a classicist who also studied psychology at university, was horrified at my change of direction; throwing up that good career - for what? Food was a subject for women, a practical issue. (She gave a series of talks on Radio 4's Woman's Hour in the 1960s on time-saving hints and taught me the virtues of pressure cooking. Ah, the mother-child relationship through food!) When I went farming, literally to get my hands dirty in one end of the subject, she felt this was akin to a rejection of the intellect itself.

In the mid 1970s I began, through the now defunct British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, to meet others who, like me, were fascinated by the politics of food. We set up two groups to explore food, one focusing on health, the other on production, intrigued by the growing evidence in the rich world of food's impact on health among both consumers and producers of food. It seemed to us that the interesting things to study in the so-called "food chain" were the connections. The farmworker's health problems with pesticides were connected to the consumer's consumption of minute amounts of residue. At least farmworkers had some chance of finding out what the toxic stuff they were using was; usually consumers were not even informed of the residues' presence.

Food history teaches us that the biological need for nourishment may be an opportunity for creativity - witness the diversity of cuisines - but it also offers the chance to control. Studying food policy allows one to ask the subversive questions: who is controlling, or trying to control, what and why? What emerges is a complex picture of interest groups vying for power. Most grotesquely this happens on a mass scale in hunger, but it also happens mundanely within families; parents and children controlling, fighting and loving through food.

To study food policy is therefore to study conflict relations. The UK crises over food safety since the mid 1980s, wherein diverse explanations can be offered for agreed facts, underline this rule. Recorded incidence of food poisoning has risen inexorably over the past 15 years; no one denies that. The differences emerge over how many cases go unrecorded and why this rise occurred. Is it consumers' failure to cook meats properly, as elements of the food industry would have us believe? Or is it, as consumer-advocates argue, that contaminated feedstuffs are fed to animals reared in battery conditions whose slaughter on speeded-up abattoir lines and poor handling by butchers results in consumers being sold contaminated food?

Trying to walk through such a minefield of analysis makes food policy a sensitive field. When it can be shown that someone has been short-changing food, emotions get heated, particularly where children are concerned. Recent food scandals in Britain have underlined this, as government, farmers and, worst of all, meddling foreigners (aka the European Union) have been tried in the media dock. But the academic task of studying food policy is more than mere scandal-watching. The scandals are like the tip of an iceberg, not necessarily an indicator of the shape below. The question remains, what is food policy?

One of the few attempts to set a workable definition comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 1981 its Agricultural Policies Working Party defined food policy as those policies affecting food - its supply and impact - which reflect "the dominant priorities and objectives of governments". This definition is brilliantly circular; food policy is whatever the government of the day does and thinks about food. It is a sphere of action that has grown dramatically since the second world war, covering not just agriculture, but processing, catering, retailing and culture. Recently, whole new sectors such as logistics - moving the food about - have emerged in the real food economy. As a result the OECD's definition is now too simplistic. Governments are key players in food policy but by no means the only ones.

So who does set food policy? The political myth is that farmers are the most powerful lobby; the reality, retailers are. In the BSE crisis, observers knew the Conservative government's approach was falling apart when the retailers, with one exception, said they would not go along with the government's "calm it all down" approach. They set up their own systems to trace the origin of meat. Protecting consumer brand loyalty was more important than supporting a government many of their chief executives had publicly backed in the 1992 election. The big food retailers and some brand manufacturers have been dominating how food is grown, harvested, stored and transported for years. The BSE crisis meant that this ratchet of control was tightened as the supermarkets rationalised how they order food from suppliers and farmers in order to trace where every batch came from.

This insistence on traceability was partly driven by the 1990 Food Safety Act, which extended the European notion of "due diligence" to food. A company has to show that it has exerted maximum effort to ensure that food is safe in order to be free from legal liability. Traceability is also driven by public relations and management control; simply wanting to know everything about what is being sold. The buzz phrase is Efficient Consumer Response (ECR), code for further integration across the supply chain. Logistics is in the driving seat - how to get goods across the chain at maximum efficiency. ECR might seem esoteric were it not a symbol of something much more significant. Quietly, the retail giants are setting their own standards, parallel to, and potentially opposed to, publicly accountable standards. Another conflict is in the making.

Britain's giant supermarket chains will now argue strongly, but as yet in private, that standards might be better left to them rather than government. We shall see whether this strategy works, or even survives once the new Food Agency is set up. The driving force of food policy is no longer government, but the unleashing of private capital's control over food. Through loyalty cards, and other consumer intelligence, retailers know more about us than even the banks.

In fact, private capital looks to be usurping government's right to set policy and govern, suggesting the dawn of a new phase in the long-term struggle for what might be called "food democracy". Food democracy is the inverse of food control. Viewing food policy as a command and control perspective is self-evident to any reader of food history. Barons, governments, corporations have all sought to control food systems. But democracy its counter? I think so. We can only make sense of modern food policy history as an epic tension between these two visions of public policy.

Anyone who has read of food riots or the demand for bread or better wages to enable a decent standard of living is aware of a democratic thread of food demands in the wider political process. I use the phrase "food democracy" to highlight the struggle over the centuries to achieve the right of all citizens to have access to an affordable, health-enhancing diet. Over the past 200 years, this has been a remarkable social tradition - from the Luddites to the creation of the co-operative movement to demands for school-meals and an end to food poverty.

In recent years the struggle for food democracy has been torn between a neo-liberalism which promises that better food emerges from unfettered markets ("leave it to the supermarkets"), and an older, welfarist and socialist perspective which has argued that markets suit the affluent not the poor. It is no accident that some of the greatest voices in 20th-century food policy - Beveridge, R. H. Titmuss, F. Le Gros Clark - came from the social policy, welfarist tradition. Until the food scandals of the 1980s and 1990s, science and technological approaches to food seemed to have quietly shed their tradition of social responsibility . All this could be changing once more. Productionism and commerce have been on trial.

Food poverty and inequalities in food-related health once more have political priority. It is shameful that in Britain, as rich a country as human history has produced, there are millions experiencing food poverty. One tenth of the population cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. Shops groan with food, yet there are food deserts in our towns. Politicians consistently think of food policy as a peripheral issue, to be handled under the agricultural brief - itself a political backwater - when food ought to be at the forefront of thinking about the economy.

Food was globalising when manufacturing and services were entirely local. Now that they are globalising, a counter-trend is emerging, formed by environmental pressure for food to be re-localised. The health of the food economy should be judged by the distance foods travel. We should study and reduce the "food miles" phenomenon, the growth of long-distance food on supermarket shelves. This is driven less by consumer demand, as the retailers claim, than by their own search for cheaper sources. The result is long-distance beans in midwinter for elite dining tables.

Food policy is a Cinderella subject, attracting big attention only when in crisis, usually wartime. That is what is particularly interesting about the current period. Food policy is in peacetime crisis for the first time since the mid 19th century, when the battles, first over free trade and protectionism, and then over food adulteration, marked the role of government in protecting the public interest. Official food policy today is infused with the common fear of government intervention, refusal to confront the rise of the super-rich transnational corporation, the love affair with postmodernism and globalisation, and so on. In my own work on food retail concentration I am learning that food offers an early warning for the 21st century. The very definition of a market is being rewritten. When four or five companies account for a half to two-thirds of all food sold in Britain, the language of the "market" is perhaps obsolete. We inhabit a hypermarket economy, not a market economy. Similar warnings are posted in areas as diverse as the cultural industries (media, music), chemicals and cars. This is the era of corporate rule. This is not just a failure of public policy but an illustration of how mainstream economics - J. K.Galbraith and a few honourable others excepted - has let us down by legitimising the erosion of public controls in pursuit of lean government and a low burden on business. The retreat from food governance has become an ideological exercise.

Is the challenge to create a new framework to let markets work or do we sit back and allow further retail concentration? Exploring this question may necessitate the questioning of economic conventions. "Efficient" food distribution, for instance, externalises environmental costs. It relies on cheap energy. The price of the so-called cheap food policy is not only that some cannot afford it but that everyone experiences clogged roads and worsened air quality, as the food belts up and down motorways and we travel further to shops in cars rather than on foot.

Despite all this I am hopeful. The growth of a strong public interest food movement across Europe is paralleled in most countries of the world. On the back of globalised media, the capacity for people to see what eludes the specialists offers great promise. In the UK, food governance, far from being the means for implementing food policies, as the OECD argued, has itself become a problem. Fifteen years of scandals will yield change in Whitehall. The Food Agency is to be welcomed, but I am as interested in the role of the rump Ministry of Agriculture left behind. What will it do? Will it survive? Will it clone itself into the new agency, as some fear? Heaven preserve us. I also discern growing tension over food education. The 1990s school curriculum removed most traces of practical food education. This so incensed the Department of Health and MAFF that they backed the reintroduction of cooking classes in schools. To be fair, a health component was inserted into the curriculum, but its effectiveness needs to be monitored. I doubt that it will compensate for the Pounds 600 million a year that the food industries spend on advertising, including the advertising of junk foods on children's TV.

Unless there is a concerted effort to empower future consumers by giving them skills, not just to cook if they want to, but to shop and look after their bodies through food, we will see an acceleration of the US obesity phenomenon. Does it matter? In the case of obesity, yes. In hard cash the cost to the NHS is immense and lives are lost prematurely. In wider cultural terms, a dependency culture could be in the making. Food is becoming more complex and pre-processed. It comes from factories, not our own transformation at home. The challenge was to get men to cook, not to remove the skills from women as well.

After a decade in which food policy has returned to the public policy agenda, I am hopeful, but only if a literate, multi-disciplinary educational process is maintained. Here lie opportunities for universities in the next century. It is really ridiculous that my chair in food policy is the only one in this country. There are professors of food marketing and agribusiness - some sponsored by corporations - but too few independent voices on food policy. Subjects which traditionally kept a food consciousness academically alive have been changing rapidly. Home economics has been transmogrified into consumer studies, the food element too often been submerged by commercialism. Nutrition has become ever more sophisticated, but often lost the social vision which gave birth to it. Economics and management try to increase efficiency without asking for what goals. New insights are pouring out of environmental and human sciences which beg to be integrated. Food policy's challenges will not be met by specialisms on their own but by teamwork for the public good.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at Thames Valley University.

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