A year after the UK’s horsemeat crisis of 2013, the Elliott Review—a study of the integrity and assurance of food supply networks commissioned by the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Health—was published. Released in September 2014, the Elliott Review proposes a national food crime prevention framework based on eight pillars of food integrity, including measures to combat the fraudulent addition of unlabelled ingredients into our food, a practice known as adulteration. Its recommendations are sound and the UK government is currently taking action to implement them.
Despite their importance, however, the Elliott Review’s recommendations leave untouched the major source of food adulteration in this country: legalised adulteration. It’s tempting to think that only companies who are breaking the law are introducing hidden ingredients into our food. But, in reality, illegal food fraud and crime pale in comparison to the industrialised and fully legal addition of harmful ingredients designed to add weight and bulk, enhance colour, and improve the smell, flavour and pungency of our foods and drinks. Waterlogged chicken breast, artificially flavoured drinks or the addition of starch as a thickening agent are a few examples of legal food adulteration.
It’s harder and harder to know what we are eating. Industrial food engineering is predicated upon advances in food technologies and chemistry that have opened up a vast and extremely sophisticated repertoire of practices that have redefined the foods we eat. The omnipresence of added sweeteners, fats and salt in the food supply, as well as of food colourings, bulking agents, thickeners, flavour enhancers and other cheap adulterants are key ingredients to what food means nowadays.
So, what’s the problem? We want to eat things that taste and look good, don’t we? The tampering and adulteration of food is key to an industrial diet harvesting profits out of the nutritional degradation of food. It constitutes a state sanctioned fraud to the pocketbook based on cheap substitution, nutritional loss and tricking people’s senses. Far from being an anomaly operating at the periphery of the food system, food adulteration is central to capitalist food production.
At the core of this legal food adulteration are what sociologist Tony Winson calls macro-adulterants: the widespread use of sweeteners, fats and salt, all of which have dramatically increased in our diets since 1945. The pernicious effects of these dietary changes are well known. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, 67% of men and 57% of women in England were either overweight or obese in 2012. The proportion of obese adults was 24% and 25%, respectively. Children too are affected, 19% of children in Year 6 being considered obese. Risk factors related to overweight and obesity are important and have a deep impact on someone’s quality of life. Among others, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, stroke, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis (degeneration of cartilage and bone of joints), sleep apnea and other breathing problems, some forms of cancer (breast, colorectal, endometrial and kidney), complications of pregnancy and menstrual irregularities are linked to overweight and obesity.
A new Public Health England survey on the oral health of 53,640 three year old children in England revealed that a staggering 12% of them have tooth decay, the prevalence ranging from 2% to 34% across the country. The survey makes clear that sugary foods and drinks is the root cause of the scourge, leading to the extraction of a large numbers of teeth from children under the age of five. The survey recommends a healthy diet limiting sugary foods and drinks, and brushing teeth twice a day using fluoride toothpaste.
Of course, the genius of our capitalist food system is to individualise the solutions to a socially produced, extremely profitable and legally supported problem. Yet in a country where 13 million (about 1 in 5) live below the poverty line, and where millions more are daily struggling to make ends meet out of an ailing labour market, the illusion of choice on the shelves of the supermarket and the possibility of a healthy diet is simply this, an illusion. Our food environment is increasingly making us sick at the very moment where less and less people are able to opt out of the industrial food diet and its debilitating effects.
We should therefore not be surprised by the rapidity with which fast food giants, transnational food corporations and the government have jumped on the food crime bandwagon. The evidence of food fraud contained in the Elliott Review totalled only a few million pounds, an insignificant amount in a country that spent nearly £200 billion on food, drink and catering in 2013. While the national food crime prevention framework proposed by the review, once fully operational, will revise the costs of food crime upwards, the latter pale in comparison to the socio-economic costs associated with the widespread use of legal food adulterants. For instance, it is estimated that the cost of diabetes treatment in the UK was nearly £14 billion in 2012, and that the annual costs of absenteeism and early retirement linked to diabetes were £8.4 billion and £6.9 billion, respectively.
Of course, food companies have everything to gain by deflecting our attention away from the fact that their profit structure is based on the widespread use of legal food adulterants. Likewise the government has used the spectre of food crime to cultivate the idea that it is genuinely interested in ensuring a healthy and trustworthy food system for British consumers. Tackling food crime should not, however, distract us from the vastly more pressing issue that is the toxic and poisonous food environment produced by legal food adulteration. The biggest food crime is not orchestrated in the shadow of our food system, but in broad daylight, at Westminster, where an army of corporate lobbyists are making sure that food companies’ profits and control over the food system come before people’s health and well-being.