Commentary So who is taking responsibility for the integrity of our diet?
Doctors are calling for a tax on fizzy drinks and a ban on advertising junk food before the 9pm watershed. Devon farmer and farm shop owner Richard Haddock asks why it has taken them so long to wake up to the dangers
A couple came into my shop a few weeks back and started looking at the ready meals we prepare here. They asked me about them, then said they were going to buy some for their children.
They explained they both had demanding jobs and that sometimes there simply wasn’t time to cook for the family in the evening and they had to have something ready-prepared – but they were becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of what they were buying from supermarkets.
Anyway, they went off with a selection of our meals and in a month came back for more – and with a most interesting tale. Switching their children to properly-cooked food, they said, had brought a complete transformation.
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The children were no longer hyperactive. They didn’t fight and squabble. Family evenings at home were now a pleasure rather than a non-stop exercise in separating feuding siblings. The children went to bed when they were told, got up when they were told. The whole family’s life, in short, had been completely changed for the better.
Now I’m not saying this to talk up the quality of our ready meals. I am not claiming that they have miraculous properties. What I am saying is that I believe it is significant that they are prepared only from fresh ingredients and without the inclusion of food colourings, artificial flavours or additives of any kind.
Which, by and large, is not the case with the pre-prepared foods – the junk foods doctors are now getting worried about. Even something as basic as shop-bought bread conceals a horror story. Many of us make bread using the four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. But I’ve seen the packaging from a sliced loaf which lists no fewer than 26 constituents in something which can still, apparently, call itself bread.
How have we allowed this to happen? Who has been on watch while the quality of food bought by a significant proportion of the population – and fed to their children – has been deliberately and cynically driven down in order to reduce costs and maximise profits?
For all the protestations of innocence that are now flooding out about who was to blame for the horse meat affair someone, somewhere, must know what they are putting into these food products.
Should we be able to track them down they will probably look us in the eye and say every single ingredient is safe. I am prepared to acknowledge that as a one-off dose that’s probably the case. But what about the effects of long-term, daily ingestion of these chemicals? Has any research ever been ordered? Have we any idea of the cumulative effects?
Could we, in fact be looking at substances which are behind so many modern childhood ‘conditions’ such as the so-called ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’
I return to the question. Who has been overseeing our national diet? Who has been checking that we haven’t been allowing people to slowly poison themselves and their children?
Certainly not Defra. We may, at last, have a Secretary of State in charge who knows plenty about food, farming and the countryside and who has been playing a blinder for the UK on the international stage in recent days. But Defra is still run by know-nothing mandarins who regard the whole food and farming sector as one of their minor responsibilities.
The Food Standards Agency has been reduced to the status of a joke. It hasn’t applied any standards; it has rarely checked to ensure they are being applied. The donkey work has been left to trading standards departments which are as much under the financial cosh as any other local government department.
Even the NFU has stood by silently as the finest meat, vegetables and fruit in the world coming off British farms have been processed, adulterated, dosed with massive quantities of chemicals and passed off as wholesome food.
The horse meat affair has done this country a great service. It has thrown open a window on some, though not all, of the abuses that are taking place in the food industry, a situation so grave that only the strongest measures should be employed by way of response.
We need a full overhaul of our food manufacturing sector with the help of a top-level group of nutritionists, dieticians, doctors and farmers. We don’t want any infiltration of it by the food industry – though we should give it powers to call manufacturers to give evidence to it. Neither do we want any cosy government appointees, those who make a living out of hopping from one quango chair to another.
We need people with hands-on knowledge of how food is produced, how it should be processed and how manufactured foods should be formulated to provide the greatest benefit, not to do the most harm. We need the group to be set up urgently because – and this is the most worrying point – we have no idea of the damage that can be inflicted on the health of a person who reaches his 40s or even his 50s having eaten little else apart from a daily diet of junk.