We are what we eat

July 14, 2007

Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined its Appetite
By Joanna Blythman
Fourth Estate 2006
318 pages, £7.99

Australians who have visited Britain will no doubt be aware that British food — whether prepared at home or in restaurants — tends to be more expensive and appreciably worse than food in Australia. Indeed, the woeful character of British food and cooking is something of a joke internationally. Recently, however, a "food revolution" is reputed to have taken place, with Brits suddenly becoming connoisseurs of fine cuisine, with television and the media saturated with cooking shows and restaurant reviews and London taking its place as one of the great restaurant capitals of the world.

In this witty and frequently acerbic book, Joanna Blythman exposes the hype about the recent British food revolution as a myth. Far from improving, the British culinary situation is in a downward spiral, with an increasingly "cash rich, time poor" population losing what rudimentary cooking skills their parents and grandparents possessed, and becoming ever increasingly reliant on highly processed and factory-produced "ready meals" consisting at best of water, fat, sugar and salt bound together by a toxic combination of additives and chemical preservatives.

Many of the statistics Blythman cites speak for themselves. Since 2003, Britain has eaten more "ready meals" than the rest of Europe put together, and over half of all the savoury snacks and crisps eaten on the continent as a whole. The average amount spent on food ingredients for a primary school meal in 2003 was 35 pence: a quarter of the sum allocated to feeding a guard dog in the British army. In 2005, a staggering 40% of all people admitted into hospital were found to be suffering from malnutrition as officially defined. (When contemplating these last two statistics, in particular, bear in mind that Britain is the world's fourth wealthiest country.)

Most disturbing of all are the statistics for obesity: Blythman describes the outlook for obesity levels in the future as "terrifying": "Thanks in major part to our gradual abandonment of homemade meals, and our enthusiastic adoption of serial snacks and convenience food, Britain is lumbering towards a fat epidemic ... Obesity has grown by 300% over the last 20 years."

Blythman does a good job of painting a picture of the British food scene in its true lurid colours. However, she has much less to offer by way of diagnosis and cure. Despite the fact that throughout the book the pursuit of profit and the domination of the food market by supermarket giants are identified as key culprits, the abiding impression given by Blythman is that Britain's poor food culture is a consequence of some irreducible antipathy to good food inexplicably lodged in the British psyche. At one point she argues against the "urban myth" that longer working hours are the main factor behind Britain's over-reliance on fast foods and factory produced ready meals: "Official data released in 2004 showed that the average length of the working week in Britain for all occupations ... fell to 31.8 hours in July 2004 — the lowest on record." However, the only evidence given for this highly unlikely claim about the working week in the footnotes is "Keynote report on the food industry, 2004" — hardly sufficient to justify such a sweeping assertion. And elsewhere Blythman talks of the "unstoppable, breakneck pace of our workaholic lives".

Despite its limitations, however, the book is a telling portrait of what a disaster capitalist modes of food production lead to, even in one of the world's wealthiest and most privileged economies. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx famously described how under capitalism the products of human labour actually dominate humanity rather than serving its needs. Although Blythman nowhere mentions Marx — or socialism — her book paints a compelling picture of how under capitalism we are alienated even from the very food we eat to sustain ourselves.

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