Junk food barons’ sticky fingers in UK policy pie

coke and snickersJack Ferguson unwraps the real story A new study by the British Medical Journal is the latest to reveal the astonishing influence of the food industry in the UK over government policy on what we eat. Sugar: Spinning a Web of Influence found that for the last decade two key government research committees advising the government on health and nutrition have undertook studies with huge amounts of funding from private industry.

The studies that have helped shape government policy in relation to sugar were paid for by organisations such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Weight Watchers International, NutriLicious (a public relations firm specialising in conveying “nutrition and health messages” for the food industry), Sainsbury’s, W K Kellogg Institute, and GlaxoSmithKline.

Their fear is that government policy could begin to mandate levels of sugar that it is legally permissible to add in to our food, as has happened to some extent in recent years with salt.

However, for many producers of processed food and ready meals, this poses a serious threat to the future of their business model, which is built on disguising substandard ingredients with plenty of the magic white stuff. Without it, much of their produce would taste disgusting.

This comes on top of last year’s news that five members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, charged with drawing up advice on the consumption of carbohydrates, had worked for the food industry previously, including Coca-Cola and Mars.

Medical pressure group Action on Sugar called on the group’s Chair, Ian MacDonald to step down, saying his failure to do so raised “real concerns about prejudice by commercial concerns rather than scientific public health priorities.” His response was to promise he would “not attend advisory board meetings at Coca-Cola and Mars Europe at least until the…review is completed.”

These are part of a string of revelations that have detailed the extraordinary power of the food and pharmaceutical industry to shape state policy on what we put into our bodies.

While the UK food chain continues to provide substandard, mislabeled food that can endanger consumers’ health, they also fund expert advice in order to downplay issues any potential response by society.

As a result, UK food policy is only interested in the continued success of multinational firms producing industrialised commodities on a mass scale, with minimal government intervention over something as crucial to life as our food.

The consequences can ultimately be seen in the recent scandals over fake food, most notoriously horse meat sold as beef, but also including “crab” that is mostly fish paste and animal products of all kinds that are mostly water. The government delayed as much as possible the publication of an independent inquiry into the scandal, fearing it would hit food profits.

When it was eventually published, the report found that an ideological commitment to deregulation had left the door wide open for organised crime to penetrate right into the heart of the British food system, meaning that meat barely fit for pet food was being recycled into human consumption, under lying labels.

All this has been drastically exacerbated by the impact of austerity since 2010, with laboratories and employees that allow local testing of the food quality hit hard by spending cuts. Emblematic of the scandalously low levels of oversight of the UK food industry has been the career of Tim Smith.

As head of the Food Standards Agency, he was responsible for food regulation, and upholding the quality of what we eat. However, in a move reminiscent of so many other revolving-door careers that have seen senior government employees go work for the companies they were supposed to be regulating, he left in…to work for Tesco.

At the time David Cameron approved the move, on the condition that he did not lobby the government or civil servants for two years. However, even this minimal commitment proved too much to keep to for such a key corporate asset with unprecedented insight into the political side of food.

Last year The Guardian revealed that he had directly approached senior civil servants involved in investigating the shocking supply of dirty chicken in Britain—meat which spreads the potentially deadly Campylobacter bacteria. He argued that if the results of the studies became well known, people might shockingly enough be less inclined to buy chicken.

Campylobacter is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, and causes the deaths of around 100 a year, and thousands more to get sick. Its spread is greatly facilitated by unhygienic, disgusting conditions in the mass production of chicken carcasses by an industry that fears little in the way of inspection.

Here we see in most stark relief why it’s not good enough for our elected representatives to see their job as ensuring the profitability of the food industry, rather than ensuring the public has a proper supply of decent, nutritious and affordable food.

Indeed, the government itself has, through its welfare reforms and aim to replace social provision with food banks, become a major driver of UK malnutrition. The need to build political opposition to the food industry’s power, and able to provide the regulation backed by science that our food supply needs, is ultimately a matter of life and death.

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