Two significant announcements last week show how rapidly the landscape of our relationship with food is shifting.
McDonald’s said that it was taking the chicken skin out of its McNuggets, and cut its salt and fat content in an effort to keep ahead of inexorable pressure for fast food manufacturers to accept their responsibilities in the health/diet debate.
At the same time MPs reporting on gangmasters lambasted not only the government but also retailers for failing to get to grips with the abuse of foreign labour in the food sector. They recommended that supermarkets be required to be transparent about the conditions in which their food is produced.
Food is, and always has been, about politics. These two developments are a clear message to the food industry that those who want to be commercially successful will have to acknowledge that they have social and health impacts too, and these are now under intense scrutiny.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of trust. I have spent much of the last year researching the modern food system for my book, Not on the Label. One of the things that has struck me as I have travelled around the country is how suspicious the average consumer now is about the food and retailing industries. They are beginning to connect the endless food scares with social and environmental damage and ask broader questions about how our food is produced and delivered.
Supermarkets are highly efficient operations but also highly visible targets for the frustration people feel when their communities are in decline. Big food brands are built on trust. If they forfeit it by being less than transparent about their contents, they fall.
The challenge for retailers and manufacturers is to get beyond PR spin, which shoppers are increasingly savvy about, and genuinely respond to consumers’ concerns. Trumpeting your local produce will not cut much ice if you take local to mean British potatoes trucked to central distribution centres hundreds of miles away and then trucked back.
Nor will taking the salt and fat out of your products and replacing them with water and modified starch. Ordinary people are wising up.
They have realised that in the risk/benefit analyses, it is they, the consumers, who tend to take the risk while
the industry takes the benefit. And nothing is more guaranteed to annoy them than the discovery that industry has known something all along but kept us in the dark, whether it’s hydrogenation and trans fats, water in meat or antibiotics in chicken production.
The big issue for consumers is whether they are prepared to pay. Suppliers are in no doubt that any new price war among the supermarkets will hit them hard and is likely to mean a loss of the very things consumers claim to want: a strong British food sector, producing good quality food.
Yet many shoppers seem oblivious as they hunt out what they think is the best bargain. But that is changing.
It may so far be mostly the chattering classes who have worked out that low prices means someone paying more in other ways later.
But where the chattering classes lead, the overall trend tends to follow.