No time for horsing around

Frozen food; supermarket

Revelations in the last few weeks of horsemeat in ready meals, burgers and school dinners has led many to ask: where does our food come from? It’s a pretty straightforward question, but not one that has often been asked or one that is always easy to answer. Recent retail figures suggest that there has been a 40 per cent fall in sales of frozen burgers since the start of the horsemeat saga.  So, are we all starting to have second thoughts about what is in our dinner?

Perhaps it is about time we did. Now is a great time to consider what we want from our food, as our collective food and consumer habits have massive health and environmental consequences.

17 May 2013 is a day of action for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution campaign. The campaign argues that obesity and many health problems stem ‘from the loss of cooking skills at home and the availability of processed foods at every turn, from the school cafeteria to church function halls, factories and offices’.  Traces of horsemeat have been found in school dinners, but this is part of a wider problem of our attitudes towards food. The latest Health Survey for England data shows that in England in 2010:

-    62.8 per cent of adults (aged 16 or over) were overweight or obese

-    30.3 per cent of children (aged 2-15) were overweight or obese

-    26.1 per cent of all adults and 16 per cent of all children were obese

Oliver’s well-publicised school dinners campaign highlighted poor school nutritional standards and demonstrated, alarmingly, that many children found it difficult identify basic fruit and vegetables. As well as the obvious effects on public health there is also a significant burden on the NHS. The direct costs caused by obesity are now estimated to be £5.1bn per year.  Surely in times of economic difficulty we should be looking for long-term sustainable solutions, where prevention is better than a cure. This Tory-led government’s policy of relaxing nutritional standards in academies demonstrates where their priorities lie: with cutting red tape and cutting budgets, not with public health.

As a life-long vegetarian (apart from a few attempts at meat in my rebellious teenage years) it seems surprising that the attitude of ‘it’s not a meal if it has not got meat in it’ is still common. British attitudes to meat have transformed since food rationing ended in 1954 and meat changed from a luxury item into an everyday, bargain-bucket consumable. In a world where the global population is expected to pass eight billion, on low estimates, by 2050  this is not sustainable. Our planet cannot sustain such an appetite. The 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation highlights the environmental impact of meat-eating and the importance of making environmentally conscious food choices. Looking at the entire commodity chain, the report concludes that livestock is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than transport.  As the Meat Free Monday campaign has argued, it’s not about becoming tree-hugging hippies – we just need to eat less meat. It doesn’t have to be a Monday; pick a day, any day, and try something new. Environmental issues are no longer fringe concerns, they are a centre-ground issue.

What does all this mean for the Labour party? Labour needs radical and progressive food education policy, one that not only looks at improving school nutritional standards in all schools, but looks at the broader issues of public health and food education. We need a food education policy which goes back to basics and teaches kids from a young age basic cooking skills and lessons on nutrition, where their food comes from and what environmental impact it has. Labour needs a food education policy coupled with long-term targets for improving public health, thereby lightening the burden on the NHS of preventable dietary conditions such as obesity. The silver lining of the horsemeat scandal is that it creates a space for public debate on food; this is no time for horsing around.

See here for more on the Food Revolution campaign

See here for more information on the Meat Free Monday campaign

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Stuart Macnaughtan is a member of Progress. He tweets @smacnaughtan

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Photo: Daniel Orth

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