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Posts tagged ‘Food Standards Agency’

Closing the Stable Door

About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state’s exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state’s revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.

But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.

Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.

Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.

Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:

The Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ’Ndrangheta have long sought to gain a foothold in the fruit and vegetable market, which is one of the most profitable markets in southern Italy. Police investigations over the past two years indicate that mafia families are beginning to have a presence in every stage of the agricultural market – from production to transport. The illegal activities are numerous and market distortion is fundamentally based on the monopoly to transport and distribution in the south, but the phenomenon is widespread across Italy.

The clans have been entering every stage of production – from cultivating products to transporting goods to local markets. It is a business that involves approximately 150 different crimes every day, according to SOS Impresa (an association of Italian business owners created to combat organised crime) and an estimated one third of farmers are affected by this.

Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.

In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,

Al Capone – who owned a string of dairy farms near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – forced New York pizzerias to use his rubbery mob cheese, so different from the real mozzarella produced … in New York City since the first immigrants from Naples arrived in Brooklyn around 1900.

As the story goes, the only places permitted to use good mozzarella made locally were the old-fashioned pizza parlours like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, which could continue doing so only if they promised to never serve slices. … Apparently, neighbourhood pizzerias that served slices and refused to use Capone’s cheese would be firebombed.

As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:

Prior to 1914, Vesteys had interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar. The company also owned ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat which they use largely for their own trade. Major expansion occurred, however, primarily after the war when in 1922 they absorbed the British and Argentine Meat Company. Vesteys had previously owned over 3,000 butcher shops in England, and the take-over added between 800 and 900 shops to that total. Overall, it was thought that the ‘deal gave Vesteys control over one-quarter of the Argentine export trade.’ On the other side of the world, Vesteys leased 20 million acres in northern Australia where they ran 300,000 cattle. Generally speaking, these were low-grade animals, but their low cost of production gave Vesteys a competitive selling edge, especially during the Great Depression when beef prices collapsed. There were no rail charges because cattle were ‘walked’ to the freezing works, and labour costs were the envy of even South Rhodesia: ‘they employ about 200 aborigines who do not seem to have advanced as far as our natives – at any rate they are only starting to ask for money wages.’

Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.

What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.

But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.

They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:

If I kill a beast in the Argentine and sell the product of that beast in Spain, this country can get no tax on that business. You may do what you like, but you cannot have it.

In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’

The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sources

Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.

Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.

I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.

Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage, [2011] 2012).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

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