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Joanna Blythman on Bad food Britain

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
Award winning writer Joanna Blythman’s new book Bad Food Britain is a blistering critique of the state of food. She spoke to Jimmy Ross
Issue 2007
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

What is so bad about Britain’s food?

We are being sold the myth of cool “Food Britannia”. According to this, London’s restaurant scene is the envy of the planet. We’re now a nation of “foodies”.

We are told Britain is in the throes of a dynamic food renaissance. This is a delusion worked up by the chattering classes.

The reality is that as a nation we’re addicted to industrial techno-foods. We’re now probably the worst in the world in this regard. We eat more ready meals than the rest of Europe put together.

Other European countries have a healthy suspicion of and a cynicism towards processed food with its additives, high salt and sugar content.

In Britain we are much more naive about food. But, in addition to that, we have a highly sophisticated food industry that daily sells the illusion that you can have good and healthy food without cooking using fresh ingredients.

This has been promoted by the stifling of independent local grocers and the small food sector under the boot of supermarket monoculture.

Ironically our TV schedules are studded with programmes about food. It’s hard to avoid celebrity chefs.

Sales of food and drink books have grown by 22 percent. Yet this is the peculiar British world of food pornography where watching people talking about or cooking food has become a substitute for doing it yourself.

We’re caught in a Calvinist trap, which says that decent food is an optional luxury leisure option rather than a cornerstone of daily life.

Long working hours combined with the dominance of supermarkets and food marketing has resulted in a poor model of life – work till you slump in front of the telly with fast food or a ready meal.

Most Europeans would regard this as a form of self-neglect – like not cleaning your teeth.

What do you think the effects of this are?

The obvious one is the effect on health. With the crisis in obesity rates, particularly in our young people, we have the real threat of a whole generation dying before their parents.

The average amount spent per child on ingredients for a primary school meal in 2003 was 35p. This is a quarter of the sum allocated to feed an army dog.

We also know from studies that changing from an additive heavy, processed food diet to a healthy one can lead to great improvements in children’s behaviour and learning.

The separation of food from alcohol occurs to a far greater extent in Britain than in the rest of Europe. This contributes to the binge drinking culture in this country.

Food is seen as fuel which we fill up with like petrol before a night out. It is not seen as something to be enjoyed and eaten in a social setting, as happens to far greater extent elsewhere in Europe.

What do you think can be done about these problems?

We could start by banning food and drink advertising during children’s programmes. The effect adverts have on our children can’t be reversed by parents alone.

What has to change is the government’s political agenda which emphasises “personal responsibility as individuals” rather than standing up to the food industry.

This blames people instead of the food corporations. It tells them that getting fat is nothing to do with advertising – it’s all your own fault.

The amount of money available for school meals has to increase dramatically to at least £1 per individual.

The contract caterers should be kicked out and school meals should be prepared on the premises using fresh ingredients.

In education, cookery has come to be regarded as low status. It is seen as an unnecessary skill.

Schools should change from teaching “food technology” to cooking skills.

As one teacher put it, “They spend months producing a 20 page project on designing a muffin. Why can’t they just bake the bloody muffins?”

“Health gurus” in TV programmes and the press must also take some blame. They feed off Britain’s troubled relationship with food.

They recommend diets of miso soup, tofu, seaweed and unseasonal imported fruit and vegetables supplemented by Smartie sized tubes of vitamin pills.

This raises people’s anxiety levels about ordinary food – “The food hazards you can’t ignore.”

It helps to make people scared of fresh food in its raw state. They can then react in a number of ways – switch off to all food advice, live in a permanent state of food paranoia and fear or buy “safe” ready meals.

Britain is in denial that it has a food problem.

Yet accepting this fact is necessary before we can go on to identify creative solutions to enable us to appreciate the pleasure we might derive from better food, and in the process transform the quality of our life.

Bad Food Britain: How A Nation Ruined Its Appetite by Joanna Blythman (£7.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.

Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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