Joanna Blythman is the leading investigative food journalist on the British food chain who has written extensively on such subjects as salmon farming, supermarkets, intensive pineapple production, bird flu, and the causes of obesity. She is an award-winning author of five books, including What to Eat and Bad Food Britain.
Her latest book, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, exposes the truth about the food we eat. Part one describes how food and drink manufacturers operate. In the second, she details the industry’s ‘defining characteristics’ in its products: sweet, oily, old, flavoured, coloured, watery, starchy, tricky, and packed.
This is the second and final part of my interview with Joanna. In this interview, we explore her work and the impact of the food industry.
Philip: What do you see as the recipe for producing healthier food? What role do you see animal welfare in that recipe?
Joanna: The precautionary principle doesn’t seem to figure prominently in the convenience food industry’s calculations, and such is the lobbying power of this influential sector, it does not loom large in the deliberations of our would-be regulators either. I would be delighted if the concerns I raise in this book could be swept away by strategic government action: better labelling, taxes on miscreant foods, and tighter industry surveillance. But I believe that hell will freeze over before the state takes radical action to protect us from the damage caused by processed food. Why? This industry is just so damn profitable.
The bottom line here is that there are already reasonable grounds to infer that a diet heavy in processed food is bad for us. We can wait for that contention to be ‘proven’, and the activities of the companies that sell unhealthy food to be restricted, or we can start operating our own personal precautionary principle by eating less of it, and cooking more of our own food from scratch. These days, cooking is a powerful political statement, a small daily act of resistance that gives us significantly more control of our lives. Animal welfare should be at the core of our food choice. We should all boycott factory farmed meat, poultry, milk, eggs. Those of us who are omnivores need to choose free-range as a minimum, but preferably organic. This means paying considerably more for chicken and pork particularly. If that means eating less pork and chicken, so be it. The amount of cheap, nasty intensively reared chicken being eaten in the U.K. is obscene. We need to apply these principles when we eat out too.
Philip: You have investigated how our food is produced for 25 years. From a consumer’s perspective, what improvements do you see or accomplishments have been made in that time?
Joanna: Despite all the best efforts of the agrichem lobby, we have made some progress. European consumers post-BSE are fundamentally mistrustful (quite correctly) of Big Food. Some of the worst additives, such as the ‘Southampton 6’ colourings have been widely withdrawn, although craftily replaced with ‘clean label’ equivalents. Big Food is pragmatic, and realises that consumers want more natural food. But this is a clever industry. So, it’s always playing around with the meaning of that word to suit its own agenda. I think it’s terrific that most of the shell eggs we eat are now free-range. This is a huge achievement and down to CIWF’s hard work in large part.
It’s been good to see how European consumers have basically said a resounding no to GM crop trials. We need to extend this to stop the feeding of GM crops (imported cereals) to farm animals.
I have high hopes for Jeremy Corbyn, a vegetarian, as a future P.M., and Kerry McCarthy M.P., a vegan, as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If Labour got elected we might for the first time have people who would actually challenge the “agribiz as usual” approach at Defra, and push for a saner food system predicated upon good animal welfare, amongst other things.
Philip: When you look to the future what worries you most about the food we eat?
Joanna: The pace of food engineering innovation means that newer, more complex manufactured food creations with ever more opaque modes of production are streaming onto the market every day. Food processing is the domain of a technocracy of engineers and scientists, people whose natural environment is the laboratory and the factory, not the kitchen, the farm or the field. They are people who share the assumption that everything nature can do, man can do so much better, and more profitably. Already we are seeing technology transforming our ‘food’. Enzymes (used as processing aids) are already commonly used, in industrial bakeries, for instance, and they don’t need to be labelled because they are conveniently classed as ‘processing aids’. Under-tested new technologies, such as nanotech, synthetic biology, and animal cloning, will start to reshape our food, and if the TTIP goes ahead, consumers won’t be able to stop them being rolled out. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen said: ‘There’s no better designer than nature’. I heartily agree. We have to keep fighting for real, natural, humanely, and sanely produced food.
Philip: Thank you!