From farm to consumer, the journey our food takes is mired in controversy. Joanna Blythman picks out the 10 issues that have generated the most heated debate in recent decades
Until the 1950s, all the food we ate was organic. Yet nowadays, organic food is often dismissed as a preoccupation of the neurotic rich. A 2005 review of the FSA noted many stakeholders believed the agency had a closed mind on organics. Its 2009 report, which found no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food, was seen by some as a clumsy attack on the sector by a biased body: researchers excluded key findings abroad and were instructed not to consider that absence of pesticide residues might be beneficial for human health.
The welfare of farmed animals has been fiercely scrutinised since the 1960s when traditional extensive farming started to lose ground to intensive factory farming. UK bans on veal crates (1990) and sow stalls (1999) paved the way for European Union-wide bans. With the abolition of the controversial battery cage in Europe (from 2012), these landmarks represent significant ‘wins’ for the tireless animal welfare movement. Expect future battles to be fought over the cloning and genetic engineering of animals, and mega-farms.
The relatively recent emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella, campylobacter, MRSA and E.coli has heated up the debate simmering since the 1980s between the pharmaceutical industry, which defends the routine feeding of low doses of antibiotics to farmed livestock, and medics and welfare groups, who believe the use of antibiotics in intensive farming is diminishing the effectiveness of these crucial drugs in human medicine. As nearly 50% of all antibiotics are used in farming, pressure is mounting for much tighter EU restrictions.
Since the UK’s leading food policy thinker, Professor Tim Lang, coined the term ‘food miles’ in the early 1990s, concerns about the environmental impact of importing foods that can be grown in the UK have not abated. Consumers continue to seek out Fairtrade products, such as coffee, bananas and chocolate, as a guarantee of more equitable, post-Colonial trade. When it comes to horticultural products such as green beans that can be produced in Britain, the ‘grown here, not flown here’ motto increasingly resonates with chefs and consumers, tapping into the burgeoning ‘locavore’ movement. It’s a trend set to continue as oil prices steadily rise.
When Zeneca’s GM Flavr Savr tomato paste appeared in Sainsbury’s and Safeway in 1996, opposition to GM food became so intense it was driven off British shelves by 1999. European consumers show no signs of warming to GM foods as anti-GM science stacks up. GM crops appear to be causing super-weeds and increasing pesticide use. Tests on GM-fed lab animals show damage to the immune system and fertility. GM proteins have turned up in human blood, giving the lie to the biotech industry’s assurances that they are destroyed in the gut.
From the late 1960s, manufacturers began using hydrogenated vegetable fats as a cheap method of extending the shelf life of their products, cashing in on the government’s nutritional advice that consumption of saturated animal fats should be reduced. But when BanTransFats.com filed its lawsuit against Oreo cookies in 2003, and in 2006 New York became the first of many cities across the United States to ban these artery-clogging fats, manufacturers joined the stampede to eliminate them from their products.
In 1988, when health minister Edwina Currie remarked that most UK egg production was infected by salmonella, she primed the pump for a series of food scares. By 1996, when the government admitted that deaths from a variant form of CJD were linked to eating beef, public confidence in the food chain plummeted. Since then a series of scares - everything from Sudan 1 to deadly H5N1 bird flu and E.coli - has thrust the spotlight on our increasingly industrialised and globalised food system and its capacity to amplify risks to both animal and human health.
When Tesco opened its first store in north London in 1929, no one could have predicted that the supermarkets would, from the 1980s, gobble up almost all the nation’s grocery spend. Despite opposition from anti-supermarket campaigners since the 1990s, attempts to confront the phenomenal power of supermarkets have had little effect. Even the Groceries Supply Code Adjudicator won’t start work until 2013 at the earliest, over five years after a Competition Commission recommended the measure. But by offering an alternative to supermarket monoculture, farmers’ markets, box schemes and excellent indie shops nevertheless hold their own.
Obesity continues to spiral upwards in the UK and the United States, even though populations have followed the nutritional gospel, established in the 1970s, of eating less saturated fat. The nutrition world is increasingly split between adherents of the low-fat/more exercise mantra, and sceptics who point to over-consumption of carbohydrates, particularly in the form of sugar and soft drinks, as the more likely culprit. In the US, health campaigners are currently lining up against manufacturers’ growing use of high fructose corn syrup (glucose-fructose syrup, which they believe is a major contributor to obesity.
As consumption of complex processed foods has risen, health campaigners have put pressure on the food industry to give consumers the information they need to make healthier choices. Skirmishes between the food industry and the FSA over its nutrient profiling guidelines for TV advertising to children were nothing compared with the all-out war over the food industry-favoured GDAs (attacked by campaigners as too complicated) and the health lobby’s traffic lights (rejected by the industry, some chefs and foodies as too simplistic). In 2010, traffic lights were dealt a knockout blow when the European Parliament voted for GDAs.