Michael Kelly: Food industry must swallow rules

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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We’re flogging a dead horse with our efforts to convince British consumers to eat a better diet, writes Michael Kelly

All of my conversation class (advanced, of course) at the Alliance Française had a great laugh at the consternation of the public after the revelation that traces of horse meat had been found in supermarket burgers. Those who had spent time in France found it hilarious that anyone should be sickened or disgusted by horse meat. They had all enjoyed it plenty of times – and it was leaner and cheaper than beef.

The British public antipathy towards horse meat is simply a cultural aberration. Kids brought up on Champion the Wonder Horse and Mr Ed could hardly be expected to enjoy devouring their offspring. So Tesco and the others have little to apologise for. Apart from the litany of terrible jokes the incident has triggered (sorry), their error was to allow the sale of foodstuffs without revealing the ingredients to the customer.

Tesco’s statement yesterday explains what went wrong: their burger supplier used a meat provider not on the supermarket’s approved list. Given the tight margins that big buyers can demand of manufacturers, it is a temptation to reduce costs by supplying inferior products. In items other than foodstuffs tawdriness is relatively easy to spot. Trust some devious producers to find a way of making an extra buck out of burgers.

Robust though they seemed, Tesco’s monitoring systems clearly broke down, but it would appear they did take reasonable precautions. The products posed no health risks and the supermarkets can be acquitted of any serious failure of their duty of care towards customers.

Many consumer groups look for any opportunity to attack large retailers. They are suspicious, rightly, of their pricing policies, most of which are designed to confuse, if not to mislead, customers. Pricing larger sizes at a greater price per unit than smaller ones is overtly cheating.

Others object to the power of these grandes surfaces, as the horse-eating French call them, because they have obliterated the small shopkeepers and now dominate town and out-of-town centres. But that’s the effect of competition. They drive out inefficient retailers to the benefit of consumers who now enjoy much wider choice, both of where to shop and what to buy. Undoubtedly they are faced with lower prices. Now that they are facing increasing competition from the internet, consumers can expect even better treatment. Big shops are a good thing.

However, and there is a big caveat here, the food industry – from producers through manufacturers to retailers – is indifferent to the health needs of the customers for whom it pretends to care. The foods that they promote so vigorously are one of the main factors in the deteriorating health of our nation. In every television advert, at every turn of a supermarket aisle, they promote foods and snacks entirely unnecessary for a modern balanced diet. They even stack sweets at the checkout desks to tempt kids to moan at their overwrought and overweight mothers as the family waits in the interminable queue.

The purveyors of such life-sapping rubbish protest that they are simply catering to demand and that the sovereign consumer has a choice. But the consumer doesn’t really. All the pressure from the food industry convinces them that ready-made meals are tasty, wholesome and efficient for busy lifestyles. Fair enough to target them, because that type of person does read the literature and can decide for themselves what the risks are. However, many of the target audience are not holding down high-flying jobs but are instead sitting at home watching daytime television, eating crisps and waiting until the kids come home from school to pump them full of chicken nuggets.

Many people just don’t know the right health choices to make – or refuse to follow them. Society recognises that with its health campaigns advising an ignorant populace what to do and what not to do. Progress has been made but it has been, and still is being, significantly hampered by industries determined that, as long as it is legal, they will sell it no matter how much harm it does. Worst are the tobacco barons, those huge multinationals who refuse to admit their obligations to society and continue to push their drug in the face of overwhelming medical evidence of its harm. That they are allowed to contaminate developing countries is one of the First World’s biggest moral failures.

But back to our own selfish needs. Reducing the demand for unhealthy foods is a necessary part of any fitness drive. But why should every pound that the public sector spends in trying to get citizens to practise a positive lifestyle be impeded by the spending of much more money devoted to counteracting the health messages and encouraging people to eat meals which directly contribute to their ill health?

Appeals to the conscience of the food industry have never worked. Inch by hard-fought inch, they might give ground. But they are not going to have a change of heart. That is clearly exemplified in the industry’s resistance to any sensible and easily understood form of labelling.

So compulsion is necessary. Health warnings similar to those on fag packets would be a start. Eventually, the government should impose rules as to what the food industry is and is not allowed to manufacture and sell. The amounts of fat, sugar and other harmful additives should be limited by law.

To those who would baulk at such an extension of state intervention, it is easy to point to the statistics of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and many other diseases partly caused by bad diet to show that this is in fact an extension of civil liberties, not a diminution of them. There is also the saving to the NHS to be factored in, and the relief of pressure on the world’s food supplies.

Given the open markets that we enjoy, no one country’s government can have any effect on its own. But this is an area where the European Union’s power should be used to legislate appropriately. The alternative is to allow stupid and lazy people to eat themselves to death.