Food writer Rob Lyons challenges the populist assumption that big food corporations produce dangerous food
By Rob Lyons
You may have fallen into the delusion that the food we eat is a pleasurable means by which we keep body and soul together, whether it is fast food grabbed on the run or a three-course meal lovingly prepared at home or in a restaurant. More fool you. According to many commentators, the food provided to most of us in modern Britain is potential poison – and it’s all the fault of big business.
In May this year, a very serious outbreak of E. Coli food poisoning occurred in Germany. For a while, it was believed that the source of the outbreak was Spanish salad vegetables. As it turns out, the most likely source was an organic farm producing bean sprouts. But that hadn’t stop food-industry bashers from repeating prejudices from a well-worn script rather than waiting to find out the truth.
So, Joanna Blythman writing in the Daily Mail could declare that ‘our industrialised, globalised food system begets public health problems. It is geared to churning out vast volumes of food and raising productivity, but at the lowest cost. So farmers and growers are pushed to make savings by cutting corners and adopting intensive practices, which open up unprecedented risks that are graver all the time’.
In other words, Blythman believes that large food corporations’ business model – the “Big Foods” – is a rather unusual one: to sell cheap, dangerous food knowing that there’s a very good chance that it will kill the customers. That would be deeply irrational if it were true. In fact, what is truly irrational is the assumption that the food system is a giant corporate conspiracy to wreck our health and wreck the planet.
A little bit of perspective is needed. Those corporations have, in the Western world at least, provided abundant food that involves spending a smaller portion of our income than ever before, in greater variety and with unprecedented convenience. UK government surveys consistently show that we’re getting all the protein, vitamins and nutrients we need, something that simply wasn’t true just a few decades ago. Shopping, once a daily chore for women, is now a weekly trip to the supermarket or a few minutes ordering online. We can choose to buy a cookbook and be confident no matter where we live that we can find the ingredients required at our local supermarket, or we can simply reheat a meal prepared for us earlier.
Big companies like Tesco, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s aren’t doing this out of some vocation to feed the world, it’s true. They want to make profits and they do so, handsomely. But they have supplied what we wanted, nonetheless. The critics of Big Food are very often snobs, appalled by mass consumption, rather than worthy defenders of the common man. For all their claims to be speaking in defence of us all, food campaigners and critics have done far less to improve the lot of most people than the big food companies they despise.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and author of Panic on a Plate, published by Imprint Academic. He is speaking in the debate ‘Is big business ruining food’ at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art on Saturday 29 October.