Published by Fourth Estate, London, 2015
Joanna Blythman’s book is a study of the quality of the food produced by food manufacturers. Extensive detailed research led her to conclude that “the defining characteristics of this industry’s products” are “food and drink that is sweet, oily, .old, flavoured, coloured, watery, tricky and packed” …. And “we are led to believe that what goes on in food factories is essentially the same as home cooking only scaled up” ( page 10). She suggests that her book provides extensive evidence that any such perception is self-serving and misleading. Because more people are continually increasing consumption of foods mass-produced in factories “A growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished” (page 12). Food manufacturers combine sugar, processed fat and salt in their most quickly digested forms, and this combination may well be addictive. These foods contain chemicals with known toxic properties, and the industry has a long history of defending its use of controversial ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oils. There is substantial evidence that consumption of processed food could be a significant cause use of obesity, chronic disease and the rise in reported food allergies (page 13).
The public policy implications of this book are very important. So first I outline the goals of the companies which dominate the industry. I then outline the principal problems they face in attaining those goals. To secure those goals, they have to sell huge quantities of their products, so I outline their strategies for achieving this. I follow this with a discussion of the priority which food processing companies assign to the production of nutritious tasty food relative to the priorities assigned to other goals. I conclude by assessing the extent to which pressures on food manufacturers to improve the quality of the food they produce are likely to be successful in the future.
These companies and corporations comply with energy, intelligence and enthusiasm to the principal legislative framework which applies to them. In particular, company legislation insists that their principal aim should be to increase the revenue which accrues to their shareholders. In addition, they are highly successful in meeting the principal norms for companies and corporations set by the electorate and politicians, insofar as they make substantial contributions to economic growth, and to innovation.
PRINCIPAL PROBLEMS FACED BY COMPANIES IN SECURING THEIR GOALS
Producing large quantities of packaged food at low cost
In order to secure large profits, the companies need to have a large quantity of products to sell, each item having cost them the minimum amount to produce, package and distribute to customers. Cost minimisation involves processes such as frying at high temperatures using oils which will cope with such temperatures and which can be used as many times as possible without breaking down. (Page 127). Various sorts of additives are used to economise on oil use. The extreme heat and length of time needed to fry some popular foods creates health hazards.
Selling large quantities of packaged food
Food deteriorates the longer it takes between the time when it is picked or harvested and the time when the consumer eats it. Lengthening shelf life is a major goal of packaged food companies because it can take time to sell large quantities of packaged foods to consumers spread over wide geographical areas.
The drive to make and sell large quantities of products quickly and cheaply and to keep these products “fresh” for a long time are only some of the factors which make packaged food producers continue to use new cheap ingredients which can help them to fulfil such objectives. They are aided in these endeavours by numerous suppliers of a wide variety of ingredients, few of which are used in domestic cookery.
The use of new ingredients presents packaged food producers with a number of problems, of which I only have space in these notes to consider a few. Changes in ingredients affect the taste, nutritional and health qualities of food and its texture. And through their own testing procedures , and from outside advice and sometimes legislation, food manufacturers often reach the conclusion that many of these changes are either adverse or likely to be adverse. Their responses to such information are often to continually take some ingredients out of the food they manufacture, and/or to add or substitute other new ingredients. The rate of innovation (if it could be measured) is indeed most impressive. But, as Blythman suggests, the net result of these change quality of the food which is ingested by its consumers is generally poor or unknown, in terms of taste, texture, nutritional qualities, health and safety.
The quality of packaged food
A central problem in considering the quality of food is that it is multi-dimensional. It includes taste and texture which are both matters of individual tastes and preferences; and also nutritional qualities which can, in principle, be measured more objectively, but are often extremely difficult to measure. Just as important, the science of nutrition is developing continually. As science develops, assessment of the nutritional value (or harm) caused by various food ingredients change. For example, developments in nutritional and allied sciences have led to important changes in scientific knowledge about the relative damage to human health caused by eating various types of fats; and to the extent of damage to health caused by ingesting various type of sugar. Food manufacturers have to try to cope with such developments in scientific knowledge. After food manufacturers have incorporated new ingredients into their products, they often have to cope with the effects of the diffusion of the rapidly developing and changing scientific knowledge about the nutritional qualities of all the ingredients they use,
FOOD MANUFACTURERS’ STRATEGIES FOR SELLING HUGE QUANTITIES OF THEIR PRODUCTS
Packaged food manufacturers have linked strategies for marketing the vast quantities of food they produce. They spend vast quantities of money promoting the taste and nutritional benefits of the food they produce through advertising in television, in the press, and through promotion in supermarkets, and more recently in social media.
Scientific knowledge does not have much direct influence on markets for packaged foods. The principal influence of scientific knowledge (mainly about the nutritional and toxic qualities of food) is exerted through regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations. Food manufacturers and the organisations which represent them devote a lot of effort to securing representation on such bodies. They have been highly successful in influencing, and indeed dominating the deliberations and findings of such bodies, both in the UK and worldwide. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was established in 2002 to ensure that foodstuffs regulations were harmonized throughout the European Union to ensure “free and unhindered competition”. EFSA’s President was also a member of the Board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI’s 62 corporate members include Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé’s McDonald’s Europe, and Unilever. ILSI is entirely funded and operated by corporations and carries out numerous scientific studies for the EU on subjects such as consumer exposure to contaminants. (George, 2015, pages 40-45)
Packaged food manufacturers are very aware that widespread public awareness of the details of their operations could damage their marketing and lobbying efforts. They try hard to conceal such details from the public –and from investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman.
Food processing companies are generally very successful in complying with the principal requirements of the legislative framework within which they work – in particular the requirement to increase the revenues gained by their shareholders; and with the principal societal and economic norms which should guide their activities – in particular the requirements to contribute to economic growth and to innovation . But Blythman in her book has demonstrated clearly that, in several respects, the food they produce in such enormous quantities often has properties such as toxicity and dangers to the health of their consumers. This dichotomy raises questions such as
1. Are the legislative requirements and social and economic norms which affect food processing internally consistent? and if not
2. Are internal inconsistencies in these norms confined to their effects on food processing firms or are they more widely applicable to other sectors of the food industry or even to the world economy in general?
3. Are there possibilities that these norms could be improved, for the benefit, for example, of consumers?
These are such huge questions that I propose to confine myself mainly to comments related to question 1.
The companies which operate in the packaged food industry are typical of companies which control an increasing proportion of the world’s economic output, insofar as their principal motivation is to increase the profits which accrue to their shareholders. Piketty’s detailed analysis leads to the conclusion that
capital’s share of income increased in most rich countries between 1970 and 2010…this trend is consistent with …an increase in capital’s bargaining power vis-a-vis labour over the past few decades, which have seen increased mobility of capital and heightened competition between states eager to attract investments…..it is also possible that this will continue to be the case in future” (Piketty, 2014.).
To increase their profits, as we have seen, processed food companies use production methods which enable them to produce vast quantities of food at very low cost per unit. Their production processes put extreme stress on the ingredients they use, so the companies spend enormous efforts and resources continuously to find and use new ingredients which will tolerate those extreme stresses without breaking down . Some of the changing mixes of ingredients they use have deleterious effects on the nutritional qualities and flavour of the products they produce. In addition, nutritional science is continually producing new findings about the toxicity and nutritional qualities of this increasing number and variety of ingredients.
In order to restrain regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations from forcing them to abandon the use of cheap novel ingredients which may well have toxic and health damaging properties, food processing companies make strenuous and highly successful efforts to ensure that their representatives dominate the proceedings of those bodies. Company representatives restrain these bodies from making regulations against the interests of their companies in making profits. Governments of individual states encourage this. An important motivation is to prevent their acquisition of a reputation for strict regulation which could impair a state’s ability to retain and attract the operations of the food processing countries with the employment and contribution to economic output which they offer.
To secure the profits that companies work so hard to achieve, they not only have to produce many millions of packets of processed food at very low cost per unit, they also have to persuade millions of customers to buy them. This is facilitated by the ready availability of mass media of communications –such as newspapers, television and social media –whose profitability is highly dependent on their willingness to convey messages to consumers at low cost that those products are nutritious and tasty. Those messages are reinforced by messages on the packages which contain the products, millions of which are distributed mainly via supermarkets. The British Government’s current policies of reducing the scope of the BBC can be seen as part of a strategy of encouraging mass communications media to concentrate their efforts on the role of stimulating economic growth, as opposed to wasting their efforts on entertaining and informing the public
Since they started nearly two hundred years ago, packaged food manufacturing companies and corporations have been highly innovative and ingenious in deploying and developing the strategies outlined above. In her brilliant book, Joanna Blythman has shown, in my view conclusively, that these strategies are unlikely ever to lead to those companies producing nutritious and tasty food. On balance, her work indicates that the food they produce is likely to remain poor in nutritional qualities and, indeed, often toxic. But corporate policies and products have been shaped by the requirements placed on the companies by most governments throughout the world to strive to increase the profits attributable to their shareholders. That the products they produce and sell are generally not very nutritious –and, indeed, often harmful to consumers’ health and/or toxic, is not of great interest to their producers. Nor is it of much interest to the companies that the agricultural and food production processes involved in making products may often be harmful to the environment.
Joanna Blythman has shown conclusively that the nutritional qualities and taste most packaged foods offer to their consumers are often appalling. But in the present dominant world legislative, social and economic environment, the behaviour of food processing companies is highly rational. In Britain, their goals coincide closely with the British government’s goals for the industry. Defra wants to “promote a British brand, grow exports, improve skills, attract high-flyers and harness data and technology so that the industry can innovate and create jobs.” The British Government is “hugely ambitious for the future of food and farming and its potential to drive growth– that’s why we are bringing together industry to set out a vision for the future with a long-term plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2015)
I have suggested that:
Multinational corporations and protesters against their policies are both rational, but corporations and protesters are operating under different logics. Disputes mainly arise because the logic under which multinational corporations operate –the search for profits –dictates that they seek to develop and exploit the largest markets…… (Senker, 2000)
And Susan George (2015, page155) concludes that Transnational Corporations “are the most powerful collective force in the world today, far outdistancing governments that are more often than not in their pockets anyway”.
It is a far higher priority for governments to attract and retain employment and gain economic growth from the operations of dynamic and innovative corporations, and to ensure that the shareholders’ of those corporations become richer, than to seek to ensure that their populations eat healthy nutritious foods.
Despite the strenuous noble efforts of highly competent researchers and investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman and Nora McKeon, food processing companies’ priorities are unlikely to change any time soon.
George, S., 2015 Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power, Polity, Cambridge
Senker, P.2000, A Dynamic Perspective on Technology, Economic Inequality and Development, in Wyatt, S, et al. Editors, Technology and In/equality, Routledge, London, page 215
Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, page 221.
Industry kick-starts work on Great British Food and Farming Plan, 2015, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 16 July.