On May 1 1997 the Labour Party rode to election victory on the promise of new prosperity and the plan to set up the Food Standards Agency tucked into its top pocket.
Thirteen years later, they may not be so lucky. But Labour, Lib Dem or Conservative, the winner of the 2010 general election would be well advised not to trample solid progress on food policy underfoot.
When Britons trot down to the polling station on Thursday, lifting the economy out of the mire will be a top priority. The food industry depicts itself as a golden child of recession: The UK’s largest manufacturing sector, it has brought profits, employments and boosted exports when other industries have flailed.
But the Food and Drink Federation feels the sector is sorely taken for granted. With the right support and policies, it could be a major force behind the great heave-ho to get the country back on solid ground.
Building on the past
Taking the economy as the top line message on food would be a mistake, however.
How the next UK government handles policy on farming and the environment, food’s role in public health, and the delicate interaction between industry and business can make all the difference for a healthy food sector – and a healthy population.
For starters, Thursday’s winner would be wise to remember the momentous changes in UK food that have taken place in the last 13 years; and wiser still to build on them.
In 1997 public confidence in UK food had been torn to shreds by BSE. The only way Labour could reconstruct it was by disentangling business interests from policy making and making dealings transparent.
Adieu MAFF. Bienvenue DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency.
Since its birth in 2000, the FSA has been the front line of food safety. It has also nudged and cajoled the food industry towards healthier foods and encouraged consumers to eat them. Industry, for its part, has made an effort. Salt, sugar and saturated fat may not yet be as low as they can go, but they’re getting there.
Carving up the FSA’s food safety and public health functions and bundling off the latter to a new Department of Public Health – the Conservatives’ plan – risks shattering this delicate partnership. However proud food companies are of reformulation work to date, would they really keep it up if the pressure was off? Fat and sugar, after all, make hot cakes sell.
A real food policy
Labour has put in place, bit by bit, a real food policy. Only this year has the final Food 2030 document been published – if not perfect, a cohesive roadmap; it gives the country – business, farmers, consumers, governments, NGOs – a vision for food security in the future.
The country is interested, once more, in what it puts in its mouth. Food thoughts are no longer confined to supermarkets or fancy restaurants. They’re happening in markets, window boxes, allotments and wastelands all around.
If the next government uproots this interest and the young food policy that has planted it, it won’t just be the food industry that will suffer. It will be everyone who eats.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.