A trolley load of food fears

Food is a source of sustenance and pleasure, yet today's foodie miserabilists treat it as a potential poison.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Information overload? Forget about it. According to a newly published survey, we can barely satisfy our hunger for the stuff – when we’re out shopping, anyway. And to meet this demand, the eggheads in retail engineering have come up with the latest must-have consumer accessory – the ‘intelligent’ supermarket trolley. Now we can find out how our food got made, what’s in it, where it came from, and what it will do to us. Since when did buying groceries get so complicated?

Shopping Choices: Attraction or Distraction?, released this week by the retail technology group EDS and the food and grocery information group IGD (1), is a mixture of opinion poll and focus group evidence that suggests that we are so disconnected from the food we eat, so mistrustful of what goes into it, and so terrified of what it might do to us, that we need a slim volume of nutritional, environmental and ethical information before we’ll drop an item into our baskets. Thankfully, according to the report, the two pieces of information people want to know above all are the price and the ‘best before’ date – we haven’t gone completely doolally just yet.

Providing lots of information is easy enough on something reasonably large, like a loaf of bread or a family-size pizza. But it’s a complete pain when you’ve got to pack it on to a small packet. That’s where the intelligent trolley comes in. With a built-in barcode scanner and a screen, the trolley can tell you anything you want to know about the product before you commit to it. From the point of view of retailers, it will also handily highlight any special offers and discounts available on the aforementioned product and, if you swipe your loyalty card before you use it, the trolley could no doubt feed back lots of juicy data on your preferences. The intelligent trolley not only soothes our food fears, it helps retailers flog stuff, too. Smiles all round, then.

There’s a lot of information to pack in. For example, the ‘traffic light’ labelling system used by British food manufacturers details total fat, saturated fat, sugars, salt and calories. For each measure, there’s a colour: green is ‘go ahead’, amber is ‘proceed with caution’, and red is ‘run a mile’. Then you need to be told if the stuff inside the package will set off an allergy. Is it tolerant of your intolerances?

According to the survey, we want ethical information, too: fairtrade, organic, rainforest-conserving, dolphin-friendly. Should we stick the ‘food miles’ on there somewhere? And if we stick all this information on the packaging, will there be… too much packaging, causing more problems for the environment? It’s a minefield. It’s a wonder that shoppers aren’t paralysed by indecision before they get past the fruit and veg.

Now that politics has been left on the shelf, it’s the nitty-gritty of our individual experience that seems to feed our imaginations. What we eat has become the bread-and-butter of our personal-is-political lives. This is pretty perverse. The developed world has long since solved the problem of providing enough food to eat, and yet the question of food seems to have become even more central to political life – undeservedly so.

Food can be fuel; food can be an excuse for conversation and bonhomie; if you are so inclined, food can be a vehicle to geek out in just the same manner as people obsess about Star Trek. Thanks to the wide availability of interesting and exotic ingredients (a product, for most of the UK, of the expansion of supermarkets), we can use food to get all creative, too.

Yet today we also treat food with the same level of mistrust as an unexploded hand grenade. All that information on the packet is just to reassure that the contents of our shopping trolley aren’t, in fact, a ticking timebomb of ill-health or environmental destruction. Over the last few years, the risks associated with food have become as important in assessing what we eat as the joy we might have in eating it. But food isn’t a toxin. Food is highly unlikely to make your children hyperactive; there’s no ADD in additives. Food won’t make you sick – despite the non-stop hysteria about obesity. Food won’t cost the Earth or save the planet. Placing so much importance on what we eat can only destroy the simple pleasure we experience when satisfying our hunger while tantalising our tastebuds.

We should just chill out at the chilled cabinets, feel free at the freezers and proceed at peace to the processed produce. If you want to be a food slob, or a food snob, that’s your choice – or at least, it should be. Let’s tell the government, the health ‘experts’ and the green campaigners where they can shove their organic, fairtrade, five-a-day ideas. If we allow our pleasure to be ruined by their obsessions, we’ll definitely be off our trolleys.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. He is speaking at the sessions Recycling is a waste of time and Will ethical shopping save the world? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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