Sugar and spice and all things nasty…the true cost of an under regulated food industry

The Guardian reports tighter regulation is required to remove sugar from food

Regulating the food industry is about more than health, it is about the role an active state should play in society.

Lets not get distracted from the real issue at stake here, the accountability of the food industry.   Tackling the food industry is about changing a business culture from one of making a profit, at any price, to one of honesty and accountability.

The current discussion on the food industry must not be overshadowed by the healthy eating debate because there are much bigger issues at stake here, not least the accountability of the food industry and the role government should have, if any,  in regulating the food industry to protect the health of the nation.  By narrowing the focus on healthy eating we risk  reducing the debate to stigmatizing those who eat unhealthily, and focus too much on individual responsibility.  For once could  the debate also include corporate responsibility.  Whilst Politicians might make noises about giving the food industry a chance to respond I would rather see decisive action from government because I trust the food industry about as much as I trust the banking industry, which is zero percent.

Just look at the food labelling debacle, which has been dragging on for over two decades  The coalition government announced in October 2012 that a consistent system of food  labelling is set to be launched this year, however, it is not quite a done deal with food producers still holding back.   Cadbury, amongst others, have spurned the ‘traffic light’ system suggesting it focuses too much on the negative ingredients in their food. Really!

But it is not just about food labelling, more importantly it is also about the food production process. For example research suggests high salt intake is associated with significantly increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, so to reduce risk just reduce salt in take, easy.  However, the same research also suggests high levels of salt intake is related to food production processes, rather than individuals adding salt to their diet, and the biggest barrier to reducing significant salt intake for individuals  is the historical reluctance of the food industry to reduce the levels of salt used in food production.

The seriousness of this issue must not get lost in tabloid headlines about ‘obese’ people.  Health campaigners suggest clearer food labelling could save lives, and have been campaigning for 20 years on this issue against a food industry which has  spent over 1 billion in Europe to resist the introduction of understandable food labelling.  Why would any one resist implementing something that could save lives?  Profit of course.  How could successive governments in the UK stand by and allow this to continue for so long?

Any talk of government taking an interventionist approach is met with cries of ‘nanny state’ from the Tory right who use this as a pejorative term to describe excessive state action.  Those who support free markets object to the use of state power in this way perceiving such an approach as restricting individual choice.  However, real choice can only be effective if we have all the relevant information to make those choices, this is where a consistent and understandable food labelling system would support real choice for consumers.

Governments role on this issue is ideological, whilst for some intervention from government represents the worst excesses of the ‘nanny state’, to others it represents an ‘active state’ coordinating an approach to promote public health for its citizens, rather than protecting big industry from taking responsibility for its actions.

Strategies that might be developed include easily understood food labelling, then the consumer can make an informed choice and if we choose to abandon food rich in fat and high in sugar producers can provide what we do want to eat. Even better remove excessive sugar and salt from food production, that would provide the greatest benefit to public health. We need intervention because we can not trust the food industry, the average consumer can not fight against such unethical practices on their own.

A rise in the cost of food is an interesting argument presented by the food industry as an argument against healthier food production. Presumably the real cost of poor quality food should include the cost to the NHS in diet related illness, but of course the food companies do not pay for this, this is displaced onto the individual consumer via the taxes we pay to fund our health care system (Do not even get me started on corporate tax evasion).

All most of us want is honesty and transparency, and maybe even an ethical approach in business where our health is put before profit, is that too much to ask?



About digalpin

I gained my social work qualification from the University of Southampton and worked for 14 years in mental health, disability and older people services. I am currently a senior lecturer in post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and am conducting research on government and societal attitudes and responses to the mistreatment of older people in health and social care provision for my doctorate. My views are my own.

2 thoughts on “Sugar and spice and all things nasty…the true cost of an under regulated food industry

  1. Sounds very reasonable indeed, Di.
    A fair society must always look after all of its people even if they have done things that others consider unwise, such as smoking, drinking to excess, playing rugby or becoming a social worker. Much as tabloids and spleen-venters in general may say they brought it on themselves and complain that hardworking taxpayers pick up the tab, no-one has yet found a fair system for wheedling out those not deserving of society’s care when they have lung disease, diabetes, dementia, spinal injury or a nervous breakdown.

    Somehow though, this does not lead to any kind of reflective feedback about how we look after our fellow citizens before they are actually in need. Rather than just pick up the pieces, it is consistent with how things are NOW to pay attention to the public’s general health and take action to prevent the pursuit of profit being protected above all else. Yet the ideological sanctity of the free market is held higher so whatever we might buy will be offered up with half-truths and downright lies to wash it own in any quantity we can stomach.

    We need to WANT different things too, though. Promote thought and wield (spending) power. Are things changing with echoes of Occupy, local food being fashionable and tv shows warning of the propagation of myths and saying bake it yourself? Is there an ‘austerity’ prompted enduring undercurrent of suspicion and healthy scepticism about big business and the culture promote, or is it just a handful of hand-wringers like me who like to think so?

    1. Hi Jason. thanks for taking the time to read my blog and commnet. I think the financial meltdown provides a fantastic opportunity for society to re-evaluate how it wants ‘society’ to be. Our faith in the free markets have been shaken, good! We need to think about the future and engage in creating it rather than letting business/money shape it for us. A once in a generation opportunity to turn things around , I hope so, that’s why I keep blogging!

      thanks again , I always appreciate any comments, makes me think!

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