Today’s food industry is as bad for democracy as it is for health.
There's something deeply undemocratic about a food system where you can buy irradiated spices but not allotment-grown tomatoes.
“Sugar Is Not Only a Drug but a Poison Too”. “Are you drinking toxic tea?” “The contents of your kitchen cupboard could kill you”: our social media feeds are filled with so many dramatic headlines about food that they have become a symbol of journalism’s descent into clickbait madness. But the frenzy of articles - and the fact that we are still clicking on them - reveals a more disturbing reality: people know that what they’re eating might be poisoning them, but they have no idea how to change it.
In a time when the average supermarket holds 45,000 different product lines, it seems absurd to suggest the consumer doesn't have a choice in what she eats. But in reality, the entire food system, from the supply of seeds and agricultural chemicals to processing, producing and retail, is run by just ten corporations who control the majority of food brands in the world, according to a 2017 Oxfam report. Individuals have little control over the corporations which keep us alive.
And Big Food isn’t exactly doing a great job of taking care of us. The push for profit has led to food that is too greasy, too sugary, and too full of chemicals. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, around a third of cancers are linked to diet and exercise. Yet while cigarettes are banished to behind the counter, sugar-filled, ultra-processed and brightly-packaged foodstuffs are laid out temptingly in our supermarkets, making reaching the checkout an obstacle course in self-control.
Maggotty mushrooms and bee-free honey
“Make no mistake, corporations are amoral,” says former international food trader Christophe Brusset. “They don’t want good or bad things for you, they just want to make money.” After 25 years working in various big food corporations in France, in 2015 Brusset published the exposé You must be crazy to eat that in which he alternates somewhat irritatingly between describing the sophisticated tricks used by the industry to fool the customer, and calling the customer a gullible idiot.
Brusset was in charge of purchasing raw foods materials and organising for them to be transformed and sold on, always at the best profit for his company. Which sometimes meant selling Chinese mushrooms containing 20 to 70% maggots, green tea with pesticide levels several times higher than the EU’s legal limit and chilli powder containing ground rat faeces. Completely legally - the contaminated spices were mixed in with uncontaminated batches until the faeces fell bellow the authorised level of "foreign material".
“I haven’t eaten ground spices since,” writes Brusset, who insists that such unappetising mixtures are regular occurrences. Which explains why the food industry is so keen to remain opaque. Corporations protect the secret of how to grind up maggotty mushrooms into edible powders and pastes as though defending nonna’s secret family recipe for lasagna.
Disinformation : from irradiated cat-food to sugar-coated studies
Big food is leading a wide-reaching disinformation campaign which begins with the euphemisms on the bottom of food packets, such as “treated by ionization” or by “cold pasteurization”, which actually refer to foods sterilised by … irradiation. When I first stumbled across this fact somewhere in an internet rabbit hole, I thought it must be some sort of conspiracy theory, but after checking US, UK and EU law, it turns out it is true. Part of our food is treated by being put in a metal container and being dipped into a vat of water containing radioactive uranium. In the EU, this is authorised for cereal, spices, fish, shellfish, fresh meats, poultry, frog legs, milk and camembert amongst other products.
Part of our food is treated by being put in a metal container and being dipped into a vat of water containing radioactive uranium.
Asking around, I realised I wasn’t the only one to have never heard about this. The industry keeps it carefully under wraps, even though food agencies insist that ionised food is safe to eat, based on several studies.
Of course, when it comes to food, history shows that scientific research needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Take Sugar, for example. Since the 1960s, dietary recommendations and research into heart disease have been based on studies done by scientists paid by the sugar industry to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead - even though new studies show that eating too much sugar is as dangerous as smoking. The food industry has carefully infiltrated scientific research so to turn it to its best advantage. “The opacity of experiments led by manufacturers is complete, systemic studies are rare, and scientific second-opinions are under influence,” concludes Marie Monique Robin, an investigative journalist, in her book Our Daily Poison.
When it comes to irradiation, recent research by pharmacologist Eric Marchioni showed that it increased the size of tumors in mice. Meanwhile, in Australia, cat-food treated by irradiation has been banned since 2008 after a bout of feline deaths. It’s still allowed for humans, though.
In a way, whether or not irradiated food is safe or not is irrelevant. What's shocking is how hard it is for the consumer to find out what she is eating.
Outlaw farmers and illegal seeds
It’s not just when we buy food that we have no control over, but when we produce it as well. It is still illegal for individuals to make a business of selling home-grown fruit and veg or homemade food without getting sanitary permits. Norms that prevent small farmers from legally operating even when they can do so in a perfectly hygienic fashion - possibly even more so than large factories. Meanwhile, even legal farmers can’t escape big corporations in their produce, as they have to use patented seeds from a catalogue, rather than reusing their own seeds.
“This touches the very heart of democracy,” says Vandana Shiva, an Indian ecofeminist, and founder of Navdanya, a movement promoting seed-sharing in rural India. “If farmers don’t have the right to preserve and reproduce their seeds, if the population doesn’t know where their food comes from and how it is produced, if corporations control what we eat, then the most intimate aspect of our freedom, that of sustaining our body, of maintaining it in good health, is taken away from us,” she told Kaizen magazine.
"If the population doesn’t know where their food comes from and how it is produced, if corporations control what we eat, then the most intimate aspect of our freedom, that of sustaining our body, of maintaining it in good health, is taken away from us," Vandana Shiva
There is no App against systemic inequalities
Things are looking up. The hard work of whistleblowers, activists and investigative journalists mean that there is now a wealth of information available about what is in our food. Apps such as Open Food Facts and Yuma allow you to scan a product and read crowdsourced information about its contents.
But even though such tools are useful, they can also have a deeply negative effect because they reinforce the idea that the consumer herself is individually responsible for what she eats.
Showing which products are better or worse in a supermarket so that everyone can make an informed choice assumes that everyone does have this choice. Which is simply not true for people who are poor. Fresh organic fruit and veg cost money. Non-processed food takes time to prepare. Since in 2018, women still do 60% more housework than men, there is little doubt who will have to give up that time.
That’s why this is definitely a political issue, not an individual one. Not having control over what we put in our bodies, not having access to healthy, affordable food, is a major democratic issue. The “right to food” is written the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government needs to make that a “right to food that isn’t slowly poisoning us”, regardless of class and gender.