By Jason Smith

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‘Fish and chips are indigestible, expensive and unwholesome’. Eating them causes secondary poverty, which arises from the incompetent and immoral misapplication of household resources. There is a culinary ignorance, a failure to use cheap ingredients to their best advantage.

Is this the latest campaign by TV chef and moraliser Jamie Oliver? Perhaps it is an analysis from a new government report on healthy eating? Or maybe it is the findings of a think tank, desperately trying to understand our obsession with ‘junk food’. It is actually my paraphrasing of John K Walton’s description of the debate about working-class eating habits in the late 1870s to early 1880s quoted in Rob Lyon’s new book. Something similar could easily be said today by any anti-obesity or ‘five a day’ campaigner.

The difference is that in the 1880s, campaigners were upfront about their belief that the working classes were incompetent and immoral. Today such campaigners hide their disdain for ordinary people behind nutritional guidelines, obesity figures, BMI calculations, and a discussion of unsustainable NHS expenditure.

In the 1880s however, or even in 1914 when Maud Pember-Reeves was investigating the diet of working class households in Lambeth, the problem was that people did not have enough food to go around. A continual rise in living standards in the post-war period has solved this problem in Britain. It has not solved the tendency to problematise people’s food choices which has seen a resurgence.

Over the past few years, the smorgasbord of panics over food have included: bacon and bladder cancer, beef and breast cancer, canned fish and premature birth, trans fats and heart disease, breakfast cereals and high blood pressure, processed foods and mental illness, mad cow disease, GM, saturated fat, and salt. Rob Lyons’ intention in this book is to investigate food scares, both on their own merits and from an historical perspective, in order to understand our essential but often shaky relationship with what we eat. Today this means confronting and assessing the worth of a lot of government advice and challenging popular perceptions of modern mass-catering practices. As he explains:

‘One consequence of the fact that more of our food is pre-prepared by others is that there is a greater space opened up for us to be fearful about food. If food is something we consume but don’t prepare, then we have to have faith that those who are cooking the takeaway or manufacturing that ready meal are doing so to a high standard. It is this gap between creator and consumer that helps to increase the possibility for food panics’.

There is another gap too. A gap between what Sunday Times food critic AA Gill describes as ‘posh, politically-correct food for Notting Hill people, and filthy, rubbish chemical food for filthy, rubbish chemical people’. Gill despairs that food should once again have become a class issue, but this is not an opinion shared by many of his fellow foodie writers. Alex Renton, writing in the Guardian, explains how he and his wife burned their copy of the previously cherished How to Cook by Delia Smith, after watching the TV series that accompanied her new book, How to Cheat at Cooking. Her crime was showing people how frozen and other convenience foods can be used to speed up the process of cooking for yourself at home. Renton argues: ‘You don’t believe, as I do, that how we buy and use food is a moral issue. Or that processed and “convenient” food sold at absurd prices by the big corporations that Delia now supports has done great damage to our society – to the rural economy, our health, and the environment—and that most of the harm has been done to the poorest people’.

Renton’s summation of the problem, that the food people choose to eat has disastrous consequences for the poorest people, the environment, farmers, and society at large, expresses the anxiety many people feel about food today. Lyons argues that this anxiety, far from expressing a reality about our food, which is more abundant and safer than ever, is a consequence of the prominence of middle class concerns in social life.

The clearest example of this comes from Lyons’s chapter investigating the fallout from Jamie’s school dinners campaign. In 2005, equipped with do-gooder zeal and a Channel 4 camera crew, Jamie Oliver set about addressing the state of school dinners, which was encapsulated by his suggestion that this was the first generation expected to die before their parents. In reality, the current generation of children are almost certainly going to live significantly longer, on average, than their parents, regardless of the problem of obesity, because of a range of other factors from falling smoking rates to improvements in medicine.

The result of Oliver’s campaign was that dinner ladies considered strike action, parents ended up taking lunch orders to the local burger joint so that their children could have some food they would actually eat. People came away with the false impression that bad diet causes asthma and that grossly overweight children could end up vomiting their faeces. Worse, primary school children taking meals fell in Gloucester from 11,600 to 9,800 out of a total of 40,000 pupils. There was an even bigger decrease in Suffolk, where the total number of school meals served in the year after Jamie’s School Dinners fell from 19,000 to 13,000. In the country as a whole, 400,000 children had reportedly turned their backs on school meals—a 12.5 per cent fall—which called into question the financial viability of school meals services.

Having been told that school food was killing their kids, parents decided it would be wiser to give children packed lunches or money to buy takeaway food instead. Oliver’s reaction was to slam parents saying packed lunches ‘are the biggest evil. Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch’, he declared diplomatically. The result was to turn teachers into ‘packed lunch police’ with nutritional guidelines set, not just for school meals, but for the food that parents decided was appropriate to put in lunchboxes, too.

When faced with criticism from parents, one saying ‘I just don’t like him and what he stands for. He’s forcing our kids to become more picky about their food,’ Oliver’s spokesperson responded: ‘If these mums want to effectively shorten the lives of their kids and others’ kids, then that’s down to them’. In the eyes of panic-mongering campaigners, everything is an ‘epidemic’, a ‘plague’, or a ‘timebomb’. Jamie Oliver is a classic example of someone who has taken a mish-mash of relatively small problems—like obesity and classroom discipline—mixed them together and heated them up in the name of promoting his ideas about how we should be fed. But it is not just campaigners who are at fault here. Successive governments have used health issues in particular as a way of micromanaging people’s lives.

Lyons has a fascinating chapter on the history of the organic movement. ‘The social makeup of those prominent in the early organic movement suggests a group of people being squeezed out of modern society: disillusioned colonials from a declining and increasingly discredited empire, aristocrats seeking to preserve rural life as agricultural workers were replaced by machines, and churchmen trying to find a new setting for religious ideas’.

So why are organic ideas that were based on disillusionment with modernity back in fashion today? Lyons’ argument is that economically and politically, Western societies have stagnated over the past 30 years or so, especially in comparison to rapidly developing countries like China, India, and the ‘Asian tiger’ economies. The idea that tomorrow will look radically different from—and better than—today seems unrealistic to many. Both the traditional left and right are exhausted, their visions of the future bankrupt. Against this background, those who hanker after an imaginary idyllic past, or are fearful of future change, can often exercise disproportionate influence over politics and culture. Alongside the aristocrats like Prince Charles, we now have the disillusioned stockbrokers who give up the rat race to sell organic jam, the New Age religionists, and the middle-class hypochondriacs.

Panic on a Plate adds something new to the over-stuffed shelves of food analysis books—a healthy portion of common sense backed up by in-depth research. It is a must-buy for anyone studying modern food systems, or for anyone currently worried about the consequences of their food choices, because as Lyons says: ‘Modern society has made incredible strides in changing the lives of people for the better through the application of science, industry and reason. Why on earth would we now reject those gains?’


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