Sustainability Essay

577 words - 3 pages

Cultures of Consumption

Working Paper Series

Food and Health Wars: a modern drama of consumer sovereignty

Tim Lang
Professor of Food Policy, City University

Professor Tim Lang gave this paper as a public lecture in the series organised by the Cultures of Consumption programme (ESRC-AHRB) on 17 November 2003, at The Royal Society, London.

Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author(s)

Food and Health Wars: a modern drama of consumer sovereignty

Tim Lang
Professor of Food Policy
City University

Paper based on a lecture given in the ESRC Cultures of Consumption lecture series, at the Royal Society, November 17 2003


No area of contemporary consumer capitalism has been more contested recently than food. It has been characterised by, at the ‘hard’ end, campaigns, ...view middle of the document...

Dismissing some of these accusations, while accepting others as the result of ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise sound basket of produce, proponents of the food industry initially responded fiercely. Although privately sometimes perplexed and hurt, they rejected the accusation that they fail the consumer. How can this attack be fair when supermarkets offer 25,000+ items for consumers to graze? When choice rules supreme? When food has dropped in price in many societies? When the range of food is unparalleled in human, and certainly British, history? When such unparalleled managerial efficiency and effort is made to meet every whim of the consumer? Has not the public, they muse, got more healthy and longer-living? So why the complaints?

In this paper I try to explore this clash of interpretation, mainly drawing upon UK experience. I propose that consumer culture is not given, fixed in stone, but made a definable actors and processes, within which organised consumer action now plays a part. As I argue elsewhere, the UK is always a peculiar case study in food. As first industrial nation, its people have been longest severed from the land. Its industrial era food was famous for its poor quality (although Colin Spencer is but the latest to try to resurrect its culinary traditions from patronage, arguing that there have been fine traditions and produce, mainly but not just for the privileged). More honourably, the UK has been home to formidable movements to right these wrongs, not just recently but in the past. One thinks of the food riots against the transition to modern market economics, the movements against hunger, to control adulteration, to improve women’s lot in food, to feed schoolchildren, and more. And yet, this very peculiarity makes UK food politics so rich to explore, so informative of tensions that might yet heighten elsewhere. As I hope to demonstrate, UK food is as fertile terrain for social scientists as it is for consumers and consumerists.

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