BSUFN are currently hosting an informal series of discussions on the topic of ‘how much has food research changed in the past 40 years?‘ For each discussion a reading is suggested by one of BSUFN’s members. The second of the discussion groups will meet on Monday the 18th of January, from 12:30 to 14:00 at the University of Sussex, Fulton Building room 111.
The suggested reading for the upcoming discussion group is from: Joanna Blythman (2015) Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Fourth Estate, London. Part I, Chapters 1 to 5 are recommended as reading to inform discussion, although the reading is not essential to join the discussion group, come along regardless of your background knowledge or prior preparation.
Peter Senker, one of BSUFN’s members and a member of the steering group, has prepared some notes based on his thoughts having read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. He presents a review of some key points about food manufacturing and processing from the book before making some suggestions for policy implications.
Peter’s thoughts are shared in two posts, the second of which is below. The first post (available here) reviewed the book and the goals of food manufacturers. The post below follows directly on from that so please read the previous post first if you haven’t already.
Some Notes on the Policy Implications following Review of Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets
FOOD MANUFACTURERS’ STRATEGIES FOR SELLING HUGE QUANTITIES OF THEIR PRODUCTS
Packaged food manufacturers have three principal 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
- Are the legislative requirements and social and economic norms which affect food processing internally consistent? and if not
- 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?
- 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, toxicity 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.
In order to achieve 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.