Monday, September 27, 2004

Food alarmism

Toby Moore in The Times manages to say some useful things about the British food culture, if you overlook the anecdotally based evidence, such as the following:

Yet, as our eating alternatives expand, so does our anxiety about eating itself — a “food doctor” in West London has a two-month waiting list.
Do you know any women who aren’t dieting, or at least talking about it? I don’t; it’s all Atkins, South Beach, cabbage soup, blood type, food combining, Beverly Hills, the Zone.


He quotes Deanne Jagger, principal of the National Centre for Eating Disorders:
If we watch television for two hours a night, we’re exposed to 20,000 messages in relation to food in a single year. And these messages are designed to get under our defences and make certain foods alluring. We’re not just sold food, we’re sold the added value of food. We’re not sold pasta, we’re sold Italy, of being there, because that association colours our emotional response to food.

The author then goes on to suggest that this is some type of deception. However, we are sold the added value when we buy pretty much everything, from perfume to cars to clothes, yet pundits seem to pick and choose which to complain about. So adding value to food, via marketing is somehow to be frowned upon, whilst selling cars in a similar manner is fine. There is a growing sentiment amongst journalists and interest groups, that food should be reconnected to locality and seasonality. This disconnect is normally blamed on supermarkets.

Antonio Carluccio (whose hypocritical views I noted here) is quoted: There is nothing super about a supermarket. This is where the disconnect is. There are all the books and television programmes. But in supermarkets they sell pre-cooked food. That is where the money is, you see. Not in vegetables and fresh foods.

In a similarly shallow article in The Telegraph, Alice Thomson stated: Many women know exactly how many calories there are in a slice of bread but have no idea when wheat is harvested.

Trade (specifically big capitalism, supermarkets...) is not the culprit here. Of course, supermarkets shape demand, but they would sell ice to the eskimos if it were profitable. That they do not sell local, organic (or whatever the fashionable criteria are) foodstuffs is testament to lack of demand. Having a relatively poor food culture, British consumers do not drive demand for "good" quality produce. Similarly, although supermarkets are widespread in Italy, "proper" markets are similarly widespread. If you maintain that supermarkets kill food culture, or whatever, and submit Britain as evidence, you must also be able to explain why you cannot submit Italy as evidence. You must also be able to explain why fresh produce in many Italian supermarkets is at least equal to that found in fashionable British foodshops and farmers markets.

A fundamental difference between Britain and Italy (and many continental European countries) is that the latter has an extremely diverse and resilient food culture, due not least to historical and geographical accident, whilst the former is superficial, fad driven and mainly confined to metropolitan areas. Therefore, when supermarkets operate in these different environments, the outcomes are very different. In Britain, supermarkets can get away with selling produce that in Italy would only be stocked by the cheapest stores, and perhaps not even then.
Solutions averred by pundits would therefore be better aimed at the cause, by improving British food culture, rather than treating the symptom.

A final point is that this disconnect, this gap in knowledge, is a fundamental reason why we in the West are so healthy and wealthy today. The division of labour economises on the need for knowledge - to thrive in today's economy you do not need to have deep knowledge about anything other than your speciality. If you are a software programmer it is of secondary import whether you know how + when wheat is grown. Time is scarce, and there is not enough of it to know everything about anything. As Adam Smith showed over 200 years ago, in his famous pin-maker example, it is more efficient to specialise. So today, we can buy from shops that do know about wheat but we do not need that knowledge ourselves. To suggest that this "ignorance" is somehow a failing is to fundamentally misunderstand how our society functions.

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