Brandon Lewis, high streets minister of the Cameron government, likes fast food. Or rather, he likes it for others and sees it as his duty to defend the liberty to consume it, form, content and all. For Lewis, it was vital that governments prevent limiting the access of citizens to unhealthy food. Bad nutrition was far better than bad commercial sense and plain old corporate deception. It would be up to private citizens to make sure they and their families were not “eating [fast food] three times a day.”
“Labour kept having a go at fast food places when actually McDonald’s, Burger King… those kind of places, whichever your fast food place of choice is, are massively important” (Daily Telegraph, Oct 27, 2013).
Choice is all. Feed it, literally. Don’t stifle a customer’s affair with cholesterol, transfats and sugar. Some addictions are evidently seen to be preferable to others. All to the good in the sense John Stuart Mill intended it – paternalism is wicked, volition is everything, but the position scant reflects the broad problems afflicting the British diet. More fast food is being consumed than ever – by a count made by VoucherCodes.co.uk, the amount is just under £30 billion. Now, figures from Coventry alone suggest that consumers will spend in the order of £2500 on takeaways every year.
There may be more television chefs hovering over saucepan and stove than ever, but the hurried and rushed British citizen has the option of a swift take-away, grabbed either on the way home or ordered via Internet or phone. Then there is good old laziness.
It is to the good that decisions should lie in the hands of private citizens, but British food regulations have a history of being flouted. Are you, in fact, getting what you purchase? The very existence of fast food suggests the end of authentically described food stuffs. The horse food scandal already showed how what you purchase in the food aisle is not necessarily what you hoped to get. Beef products sold by Bird’s Eye, Taco Bell and catering supplier Brakes also fell victim to selling meat products with traces of horse DNA (BBC News, March 1, 2013).
It was then considered convenient to attack Romanian butchers selling horse meat, till it became clear that the food would miraculously change in terms of description the moment it left the abattoir. Less is more in the food trade, and if the nature of what is served can be altered, it will be done out of the view of public or inspector. Following the horse meat fiasco, an interim review of supply chain networks was conducted, making 48 suggestions till the final report is released. Among them is the rather dramatic suggestion of creating a food crime unit.
This month, another scandal in the takeaway market surfaced, suggesting that the Elliot Review remains very much a distant murmur. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that 43 out of 145 samples of lamb takeaways – usually in the form of the ubiquitous kebab or curry – were misrepresented (BBC News, Apr 16). Of the samples, 25 were found to contain just beef. (Short cuts in the kitchen are frequent – beef is cheaper than lamb.) Fines of up to £5,000 are being threatened.
The consumer organisation Which? dug deeper and found in their sampling of takeaways in London and Birmingham that 40 per cent of lamb meals had traces of some other meat or no lamb at all. Richard Lloyd of the organisation could only conclude that food fraud was rampant. “The government, local authorities and the FSA need to make tackling food fraud a priority and take tougher action to crack down on the offenders.”
According to Chief operating officer of the FSA, Andrew Roberts, “Prosecutions have taken place against business owners for mislabelling lamb dishes, but the recurring nature of the problem shows there needs to be a renewed effort to tackle this problem.”
While a regulatory frame of mind might well be issuing forth from the FSA, it is clear that the laissez faire approach is still appreciated in some circles. Lewis is the sort of person to show that mediocre standards are indispensable to the free market. If food be rotten, then eat it with the full blessing of Tory governance. To place restrictions on fast food outlets would, in fact, be “socialist”.
The list of comments on the BBC news site in response to the lamb revelations registered less surprise than solid resignation. Customers, said one respondent, won’t pay for a £8 kebab – they are the ones to blame. Another claimed that, “If it’s fit for human consumption then that’s fine by me” (BBC, April 17).
In some cases, the consumption of fast food is the reverse status symbol, a culinary cult that gives the middle finger to the middle brows. Tories would rather not touch that blue collar base – burgers and kebabs, whatever is in them, means votes. Thus, a wedding couple – Steven and Emily Asher of Bristol – will fork out £150 for a wedding reception feast for 33 guests “in a roped-off area at the Cribbs Causeway restaurant.” As the Daily Mirror reported, “The happy couple were treated to a bottle of celebratory champers by the manager, but had to hold off on the bubbles because of McDonald’s ban on booze.” Labels, it seems, can be irrelevant.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org