Published by Fourth Estate, London, 2015
Joanna Blythman’s book is a study of the quality of the packaged food produced by largescale food manufacturers. Extensive investigative journalism 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”. She provides extensive evidence that any such view of it is misleading.
Because more people are eating much more foods mass-produced in factories “A growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished” . 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.The industry has a long history of defending its use of controversial ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oils. There is a lot of evidence that consumption of processed food could be a significant cause use of obesity, chronic disease and the rise in reported food allergies.
COMPANY GOALS AND HOW THEY ACHIEVE THEM
These companies and corporations comply with energy, intelligence and enthusiasm to company legislation which insists that their principal aim should be to increase the revenue which goes to their shareholders. In addition, they are highly successful in meeting the principal norms for companies and corporations set by politicians, by making substantial contributions to economic growth.
So as to get 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 .Minimising costs involves processes such as frying at high temperatures using oils which will cope with such temperatures and which can be used many times without breaking down.(Page 127). Various additives are used to economise on oil use. The extreme heat and length of time needed to fry some popular foods creates health hazards.
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 some of the factors which make packaged food producers continue to use new cheap ingredients which can help them to do this.. They are aided in these endeavours by numerous suppliers of a wide variety of ingredients, few of which are used in domestic cookery.
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. 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 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 eating various type of sugar
PACKAGED FOOD MANUFACTURERS’ STRATEGIES FOR SELLING HUGE QUANTITIES OF THEIR PRODUCTS
The information provided in advertising is always distorted. The principal influence of scientific knowledge (mainly about the nutritional and toxic qualities of food) shoud be exerted through regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations.But packaged 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. They 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.
Food processing companies are generally very successful in complying with the principal requirements of the laws which they have to comply with – in particular the requirement to increase the revenues gained by their shareholders; and with the principal guidance which they get from governmentS in particular the requirements to contribute to economic growth. But Blythman 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. These companies are typical of companies which control an increasing proportion of the world’s economic output. Their principal motivation is to increase the profits received by 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 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 for Governments is to prevent their countries acquiring reputation for strict regulation which could impair teir 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 communication –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, tasty and fresh. such lies 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 making profits by disseminating lies which stimulate economic growth, instead of wasting public money 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 I have outlined. In her brilliant book, Joanna Blythman has shown, in my view conclusively, that these strategies are unlikely ever to result in those companies producing and marketing nutritious , tasty fresh food. In contrast , her work indicates that the food they produce is likely to remain poor in nutritional qualities and, indeed, often toxic. Company 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 received by 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 the behaviour of food processing companies is highly rational. In Britain, their goals coincide closely with the British government’s goals for the industry. The British Government ‘s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 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”.
Susan George concludes in he book Shadow Sovereigns 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. In tis context, the controversy about Britain staying in or leaving the European Union is a ridiculous irrelevant farce brought to you by courtesy of David Cameron, Boris Johnson et al.
Despite the strenuous noble efforts of highly competent researchers and investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman, food processing companies’ priorities are unlikely to change any time soon.
George, S., 2015 Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power, Polity, Cambridge
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.