Indulging Industry

Article excerpt

"Twizzlers!" said Jamie Oliver, face of Sainsbury's supermarkets and public health hero of the hour, to a shocked audience at the Channel 4 'Feed Me Better' panel debate this March, "Sainsbury's sell 'em, and I don't agree with that!" Jacob Lonsdale asks whether it is really the role of industry to care for the nation's nutrition.

I stand in a bad-tempered line waiting for the conveyor belt to inch my goods towards the checkout girl. As I grow increasingly sour at my wait, my eyes wander to the impulse-purchase sweets perching enticingly on a little shelf overhanging the conveyor belt.

Be they by the tills or at the cigarette counter, sweet shelves are never far from reach when buying your groceries. And, though it causes the health-conscious among us to battle with our inner demons, and parents to battle with their little ones, why should supermarkets not offer us temptation?

"There are two ways of looking at industry responsibility," says Jeanette Longfield of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. "One is that they're just companies, their job is to make a profit in any way they can. The other is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)." Sustain generally set themselves in opposition to industry, so it's a surprise when she tells me, "I am rather inclined to the view that the job of business is to be business, and not to pretend that they're anything other."

Others feel that, given the huge power and wealth of industry, they owe a debt to society to act upon its concerns. As Professor Tim Lang puts it, "Industry wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the consumer."

"The battle that's built up over the last twenty years," he says, "is whether industry is going to respond, and the well-entrenched industry has said 'On your bike.' There is a rubric of CSR, but half of this is just cynical, trying to buy time."

Having taken something of a PR battering, burger giant McDonald's took to selling healthy options with aplomb and are now the biggest purveyor of salads in the world, selling more than 7.7 million in their first year of UK sales. But this has not stemmed the criticism: "My guess - and maybe I'm just a cynical old bag," says Longfield, back on her more usual side of the debate, "is that all the marketing stays on the high-volume, high-profit stuff; the burger, chips and milkshake. They said that they're stopping 'Super-sizing', but instead they're doing 'buy one, get one free'. And who among us can resist a bargain?"

Successful self-regulation has not thus far proved to be the norm. Industry on the whole has resisted change, as indeed they must to protect their interests. "If government regulates, then industry have no bloody choice, do they?" says Longfield. Again, surprisingly, industry and Sustain seem to be in agreement. A legal obligation would lift the impossible demand of voluntarily weakening competitive edge from the shoulders of executives.

In the UK 500,000 people are employed in food manufacturing, a £69 billion industry, while the hospitality industry generates around £80 billion. Given these facts, legislating against the interests of these businesses is not something government can take lightly. According to Professor Lang, the food debate has gone beyond issues of CSR or self-regulation: "It's about a long-term rebalancing of the imbalance between state, civil society and supply chain."

While Government and industry have proven vulnerable to the celebrity clout of Jamie Oliver, perhaps - at least for the adult population, and as unlikely as it sounds - the same cannot be said for the public at large. Despite celebrity endorsements aplenty on 'indulgence' goods, a real shift in consumer preferences is evident.

The UK market for organic produce has grown ten per cent in the last year according to the Soil Association's Organic Food and Farming Report 2004, and entrepreneurs, such as Jon Wright, Adam Balon and Richard Reed (founders of Innocent smoothies) have made good on the public's hunger for natural and nutritious produce over the past five years. …