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Why is Food in Britain Shite?


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


Australians who have visited the UK 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, 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 more and more of a “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. Around two-thirds of adult males, and more than half of adult females, are now either overweight (fat) or obese (extremely fat). Obesity has grown by 300% over the last 20 years. More than a fifth of Britain’s adult population is obese – and that’s just the grown ups. Nearly one third of British children aged 2-15 are either overweight or obese. Obesity is rising twice as fast among children as adults. Nowadays, nearly 16% of children aged 6-15 are now officially obese – three times as many as a decade ago – and this puts them at risk. In 2002, cases of maturity-onset diabetes in obese British children were reported for the first time. Fatty deposits – one of the first signs of heart disease – have also been identified in the arteries of teenagers”.

Food education in schools is exacerbating the problem: Blythman explains how British schoolchildren are not taught how to prepare a meal from fresh ingredients, but learn instead the advantages of irradiation as a method of preservation and how to design a flow diagram describing the production of a chicken curry in a factory-like process.

Blythman does a good job of painting a picture of the British food scene in its true lurid colours. 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 1843, 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.

2 Com:

Louisefeminista | June 11, 2007

As someone who lives in the UK (specifically London) I can only reiterate how expensive food is but also how much salt, sugar and crap like substances are in processed foods. Sugar seems to be in everything (I was trying to buy Balsamic vinegar the other day and couldn't believe the manufacturers had put sugar in it. You don't put sugar in Balsamic vinegar!!).

The supermarkets market bulk commodities that have basic ingredients such as saturated fat, sugar, flour and salt. Highly industrialised process.

Also, food is seen as a way of refueling rather than a social event i.e. sit down and engage with others. It is a case of rushing around and eating dinner/lunch/breakkie on the move or watching the telly. Totally alienating and resulting from a privatised social environment. And working long hours is part of this alienation.

There are issues about lack of education around food and dietary needs this also connects with exercise (so expensive, sports clubs are privatised and green spaces are disappearing). But what should be explored is the contradictory messages that are thrown up in this society about our relationship to food, emphasis on diets and the ideal body (geared towards women)this feeds on the insecurities and low self-esteem as well.

This exposes our relationship to food, contradictory messages about body image and controlling our food intake. These are complex issues which need to be explored.

Squawkin' Galah | August 06, 2007

It's true, UK food is particularly bad. Last year my partner and I spent some time in Europe before hopping over to the UK for a week before the trip back to Australia. As we booked into a Bed and Breakfast in Sherringham we were told about the wonderful large cooked breakfast we'd get in the morning. Unfortunately, we'd been thoroughly spoilt in Europe. Our breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast tasted like ... nothing. It was amazing how such a large and colourful plate of food could be so lacking in any sort of vitality. I think we're somewhat better off here in Australia, but I agree that capitalism can do nasty things with food. I say "can" because the French and Italians are certainly capitalists, but they would surely die before eating British toast.

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