2020 08 – News From France


This continues on the topic of obesity in connexion with Covid 19, relevant almost equally to France and the UK.

Covid 19 has revealed social inequalities: the less well-off and black and ethnic minority people are more likely to suffer more severe forms of the disease and even die of it.  Because obesity affects these groups particularly and is an additional risk factor, it is relevant to ask questions about the quality of food consumed by these groups, and whether governments are doing enough to regulate food production.  Is there an inequality in the safety of food, based on price?

Obesity is most common in the US, then in the UK, then in France.  The EU has managed so far to slow down the trend through higher food standards.  This may be about to change in the UK, which is negotiating trade deals with the US and perhaps having to accept its lower standards. It is not looking hopeful.

On 29 August 2019, in an interview with Sky News, Professor Sir Ian Boyd, retiring Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), commented on the question of whether imports of chlorinated chicken and beef reared with artificial hormones should be allowed into the UK. He said that these were matters that should be decided by ‘consumer choice’.(1)

“The issue is about production processes and animal welfare, and that is a values-based choice that people need to make.

“My view is that we need to be allowed to make that choice. (2)

This is shocking.  First of all, chlorinated chicken is not safe:

“the academics point to research published last year which found washing food in bleach does not kill many of the pathogens that cause food poisoning. Instead, it sends them into a “viable but non-culturable state”, which means they are not picked up in standard tests, which take a sample of the food and try to culture any germs on it.” (3)

Five other chemical disinfectants can be used (acidified sodium chlorite, peroxyacetic acid, cetylpyridium chloride, lactic acid, and trisodium phosphate).

Accepting chlorinated chicken means giving up the EU approach which is preventative and precautionary rather than remedial. It aims to ensure that foods are produced in sufficiently hygienic ways to avoid the need to be disinfected prior to sale.

Secondly it will not be a matter of choice; people constrained by money worries will buy cheaper food, which this will be.  We leave aside the implication that only the rich have a conscience about animal welfare, or the consequence that UK poultry producers will be under pressure to abandon good practice if they want to remain competitive.

But this is not the most shocking.  What is more shocking is that this attitude, ‘it’s consumer choice’ in the face of unsafe but cheap food, is in fact the prevalent attitude of both the government and society in general.

Take NHS nutrition advice.  It describes ready meals as overladen with fat, sugar and salt and best avoided, throwing responsibility on the consumer.  Whole sectors of the supermarket become a black hole; better off consumers avoid them, and the government has washed their hands of them. Yet there are prices and quality differences between ready meals.  Pizza, lasagne, shepherd’s pie, chicken curry come in a range of prices.  The cheaper the finished product, the longer the list of ingredients; the extra components compensate the cheapness of the main ingredients, ensuring the result looks and tastes good.  This applies beyond ready meals; the quality of staples such as bread also varies according to price. The cheaper versions are suspected of containing obesogenic ingredients over and beyond fat, sugar and salt.

Take for example High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is a cheaper sort of sugar.  We knew about sugar made from cane and from sugar beet.  These plants contain natural sugar juice, extracted and refined to make sugar.  HFCS comes from corn (maize), which does not contain sugar but starch.  This starch is transformed into types of sugar with an array of chemicals.  The resultant syrup is not processed (metabolised) in the body like cane and beet sugar, for example it does not stimulate the production of the hormone that produces the sensation of fulness, in other words it creates a hormonal dysfunction.

This alone should make it suspect.  Because it is cheap and easier to use than ordinary sugar, and it is useful in many ways other than making things sweet, for example it helps frozen food to keep its appearance, it is present everywhere.  Its increase in use has coincided with an increase in obesity in the countries where it is used and imported.

There is alarm about it, but no action.  Lobbies make sure that facts are fudged. 

Although their existence is well known, talking about ‘lobbies’ means talking without proof, since lobbies are not public bodies and do not publicise themselves.  Their influence is documented after the event, for example when lobbies spread doubt that tobacco is carcinogenic.

Another occasion when lobby influence was manifest was in 1979; the 70s was a time of public alarm regarding Antibiotic Growth Promoters (AGPs) in the meat industry.  An academic paper on the question summarises lobby influence to avoid limitation of AGPs: “Calling for concrete proof of harm and employing counter science, pharmaceutical lobbyists successfully played on growing regulation wariness and concerns about ‘stagflation’ to defeat restrictions. With scientists appearing divided, Congress effectively imposed a moratorium on statutory AGP restrictions by calling for more research in 1979.”  (4)

The same applies today about limiting HFCS: regulation wariness (light touch regulation/self-regulation, small state), concerns about economic growth (the need of cheap food to keep the economy going), scientists appearing divided, the vague conclusion that more study is needed.   It is not reassuring that the NHS analysis of studies about HFCS says exactly that: ‘there is no proof, further research is needed’ even though they accept that countries with high consumption of the sugar substitute have higher level of obesity; their reaction should be instead to invoke the principle of precaution.  (5)

Citizens have a choice: either campaign to stop the substance being used, and fight against lobbies that have the power of the big food corporations behind them, or turn your back on the problem and buy your way out.  As the same study says: “Similar to the history of pesticide regulation, relying on the market-driven provision of ‘antibiotic free meat’ not only risks the creation of very unequal access to allegedly safe food. What is more, it also runs danger of reinforcing regulatory stagnation by rhetorically displacing responsibility for what can only be tackled at the societal and political level onto the shoulders of individuals.”

In the UK the campaign by, among others, the National Farmers Union, to keep up British standards on food and animal welfare in the face of US imports is an encouraging sign that the responsibility will not be put on the shoulders of individuals, but recognised as a social and political responsibility.  The labour movement should build on this to improve standards still further.

Source: Weighing In— Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism by Julie Guthman, 2011