Cheap food is just too expensive

The industrial revolution that started around 1800 was a major turning point in our history. We invented wide scale industrialisation and almost every aspect of ordinary people’s lives was affected. By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was the world’s leading commercial nation with a trading empire that literally spanned the globe.

But it led to a large-scale population movement away from the land to towns and cities. Most people became unconnected to farming relying instead on others to supply their food.

This disconnect is more acute than ever. Fast forward just over 200 years, and the widespread industrialisation of food production has reached such a point that you can only use the most unethical and unhealthy shortcuts to get to the price points demanded by the major supermarkets. 

This was epitomised in 2013 by the ‘revelation’ that the Findus beef lasagne range in the UK contained 60% to 100% horsemeat. It contained meat from a Romanian abattoir delivered to a trader in the Netherlands who contracted a Cyprus trader to sell the frozen meat to a French meat processor who then sent it to Comigel to make into a ready meal. They have a factory in Luxembourg where 200 employees produce 16,000 tonnes of frozen ready meals every year and sell them to people like Findus who put their brand on it.

Despite the number of links in this chain, they can still deliver a £1.99 frozen family meal. Farmers’ markets and artisan food do not sell expensive or luxury food, the price you see reflects the true cost of ethical production. Unfortunately, it gets compared to artificially cheap industrialised food which is hugely unfair.

The dishonesty and lack of transparency in the sourcing of food is shocking but it’s the hidden costs of the most awful public health issues that make cheap food so expensive in the long run. It is fair to call the rise in obesity an ‘epidemic’. Public Health England estimated that the NHS spends around £6 billion annually on overweight and obesity-related ill-health. As they put it: “Annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.”

Meanwhile cheap sweets and sugary drinks are ruining the nation’s teeth. According to the Local Government Association, hospitals extracted multiple teeth from children and teenagers in England over 42,000 times in a year. Each one involved a child having a general anaesthetic with the cost to the NHS around £36 million.

It is clear that the supermarkets and large brands have lost control of quality and traceability. Only the government can help with brave legislative measures that should not be party-political but supported by all MPs for the good of our health. Spending should be prioritised to educate our children and their parents to confidently buy, cook and value real food.

Boris has declared war on obesity and I hope that includes some form of tax on artificially cheap food so that it has to compete on a level playing field with our farm shops, local delis and independents that provide us with traceable, locally produced products and always have.


Sue Nelson

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