Food industry ‘being sacrificed to keep prices low’

Food safety expert professor Chris Elliott has called for a new approach to food at The City Food Lecture 2017.

The need to approach food production differently and an urgent need for people to reconnect with their food were the key themes of the lecture this week.

Although prepared by Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and founder of the Institute for global food security at Queen’s University Belfast, the lecture was delivered by Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, after Professor Elliott was forced to withdraw from the evening for personal reasons.

Held at London’s Guildhall, the lecture was given to industry leaders, academics and members of London’s leading food-related livery companies.

It focused on the impact of the complex global food supply system and said this had had a “massive and negative impact” on our ability to understand and care where our food comes from. 

The address then covered the UK’s growing dependency on importing food, and the effects of the £20bn balance of payments agri-food deficit.

Elliott argued that the UK agriculture and food industries “are being sacrificed to keep food prices low, provide consumer choice and maintain political stability”.

He also said he believed the UK agriculture industry “does not compete on a level playing field”.

“Having strict regulations is, of course, important to protect many attributes of a high-integrity food system, such as workers’ rights, animal welfare and to ensure our food is safe. However, in the highly complex global food supply system, to be able to say these standards are met by all exporting countries is, in my opinion, really not possible.”

Putting it simply, he said, working to lower standards meant a lower cost base, and resulted in products that were much more competitively priced.

He added: “We are importing large amounts of food ingredients and commodities into the UK. These are often from complex supply chains. This leaves us highly vulnerable to the growing menace of food fraud, which is being orchestrated more and more frequently by organised criminal networks.”

The speech also highlighted the professor’s concerns about the growing “disconnect” between people and their knowledge of where their food comes from. He said the causes were complex and that government, the food industry and educators had a responsibility “to address the major societal problem”.

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