I woke up on 26 February, the publication day of Swallow This, to the sound of the Radio 4 Today programme mentioning my book on the back of a news story in the Daily Telegraph and Metro. From its Guardian extract onwards, a full and diverse slate of media outlets - everything from Newsweek to the Times - has picked up on themes from my exposé of the food industry. In the past week, the ripple has become global, with pick-up from Australia, New Zealand, the US and more.
Setting aside the predictable whinge from the odd narrow-minded science geek who accuses me of “chemiphobia”, the reaction has been hearteningly supportive. For instance, an ex-food technologist, who had worked in a factory churning out 15,000 convenience breakfasts a night, came on the line during a phone-in on South Africa’s 702 radio station. “Trust me, you don’t want what goes on there. And you certainly don’t want to eat them” he told listeners. Inspired by my Independent piece on the chocolate muffin that showed no signs of rot after a month, another caller reported on a pack of mini-muffins he discovered packed accidentally in kit from a camping trip: they still looked ‘fresh’ 10 months later.
And the response to my investigation of the processed food industry has been just like that, even from those in the know. A professor of microbiology emailed to tell me that according to his team’s research, chlorine washes didn’t kill off pathogens on salads. The founder of a biotech company flagged up his concern about the ingredients and chemicals being added to processed foods. “I believe you to be correct in your view of the food industry” he wrote.
A long line of emails have also come from people outside the industry. One, the mother of a child who developed allergic reactions from eating processed food in school, is fighting an uphill struggle to get MSG removed from the school lunch gravy. “None of these additives have been tested long term and none have been tested in combination with one another” she quite correctly points out. After noticing that his young daughter reacted badly to processed food (at birthday parties and so on), one father-turned freelance researcher wrote: “My conclusion was identical to yours, that the food processing industry is not only highly secretive, but has an extremely powerful political lobby.”
On Twitter, @Simon368 observed: “Reading new book it seems the food ind is closely related to the sport doping industry- secretive and a step ahead of regs”. Extreme perhaps, but there are parallels. On a live Guardian blog, a former food manufacturer employee volunteered that he left his job because he couldn’t hack the industry’s “contempt” for consumers.
It’s clear that the public, both at home and abroad, is highly suspicious of processed food, and that it has an appetite for facing up to its unpalatable reality. Using its “clean label” strategy, the industry nearly managed to convince us that factory food was utterly wholesome these days, but someone (it turned out to be me) was going to blow that illusion apart sooner or later.
The year 1989, when Maurice Hanssen’s influential E is for Additive was published, was the processed food industry’s first annus horribilis, And 2015 might yet turn out to be its second.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and the author of Swallow This
“The reaction to my book has been hearteningly supportive”