The voice of food

For 17 years, broadcaster Derek Cooper has fought to improve how British food is produced. Here, he airs his hopes and fears for the future. By Annie Bell. Photograph by Tom Miller
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The Independent Culture
The sound of Derek Cooper's voice pouring out of BBC Radio 4 at 12.30pm every Friday lunchtime is as comforting and familiar as custard over a syrup sponge. Deep and studied, with the cadences of a bygone age, it's the vehicle for an assured dry wit that could almost be mistaken for cynicism but is the perfect accompaniment to a programme renowned for its campaigning stance.

The Food Programme, which he presents, is now in its 18th year, and Cooper, at 71, is as professionally active as ever. The programme, he proclaims, is "the only one on radio or TV that consistently, week after week, looks at the issues that food presents". If you're concerned about the spread of BSE or the arrival of genetically engineered foods in the shops, this is where you tune in.

When I meet him, at his Richmond Thames-side home, he's wearing faded blue jeans, not the sort that look as if they've been unravelled from a crumpled heap on the floor in the morning. His regimental bearing probably comes from the four years he spent in the navy, from 1943-47. His silver-grey hair is neatly combed, and he's full of Olde-World charm and what I'd normally call gift of the gab, but which in him reflects a mastery of the English language - the subject he read at Oxford. (Through an unfortunate accident halfway through his exams, when he was run over, he gained his degree after a viva.) Distinguished? "I don't think I had any academic potential whatsoever," he flatly replies.

The Food Programme began with an article he wrote in the late 1960s about the kind of food on offer to foreigners on holiday in Britain. This was reprinted in The Listener under the headline "The Bad Food Guide", a title repeated in 1967 as a book which did phenomenally well: "It received 91 reviews, more than any book I've subsequently written." Cooper then took over Christopher Driver's column in the Guardian when Driver went to edit The Good Food Guide, and spent the next 17 years working on Tomorrow's World.

During this time, together with producer Richard Wade, he devised a weekly television programme that would analyse what was going on in the world of food: the economics and sociology, the pleasure and the sheer badness of it. They acquired the necessary funding for a pilot, but it never got made. The Food Programme finally appeared on Scottish TV in 1976. The radio show followed in its current form in 1979.

In Cooper's eyes, there was no need for more cookery hints - Delia was already doing a fine job of stuffing goose with prunes. In fact, cookery never came into it. "The original conception was a cross between Tomorrow's World and World in Action."

Along the way, Cooper and Wade have delved into the nastier things in the fridge. "Together with Farming Today, we were the first to use the term `bovine spongiform encephalopathy'. We were accused of scaremongering. Those were the days when Gummer was telling everyone that British beef was perfectly safe."

Today, he finds that the greatest public concern is concentrated on genetically engineered food. He's "advocating caution", and, after his BSE warnings, any government would do well to heed his opinions: "No one knows what the long-term effects are." He mentions the use of chemicals in sheep dips which farmers claim have damaged them. "Only after many years are we seeing the downside of sheep dips. And we already know that genetically engineered foodstuffs can cause anal leakage." He wonders what else they can cause.

The scares over BSE and genetic engineering led me to ask whether he felt there was more cause for concern now than ever before, but he seems to think not. What does especially bother him is what he sees as the two-tier system within the UK, "the dotty notion that there is food and then there is healthy food", the stuff which has not been "tampered with" by modern technology and is sold at a premium to consumers with above- average incomes. This puts those on low incomes at a big disadvantage.

As Cooper sees it, Whitehall has one agenda for housing and for farming, and another for food - "that it should be produced as cheaply as possible vis-a-vis the rest of Europe". So a nutritionally poor diet of white bread, margarine and jam, cheap meat pies and chips, sweets and flavoured crisps becomes the food of the poor. Tricks are played with fake ingredients. Technology is deployed in a way that nature never intended. And, to make matters worse, "advertising that sells food as convenience suggests to people that cooking itself is drudgery".

He recalls a moving image that he saw on a television programme about housing the homeless: "The titles rolled up over a mother and child, each eating a takeaway burger and chips, in a room where there was no possibility of making soup. What do you do with people like that?"

But there is a cultural difference between those who choose convenience food over cooking and those who do not have the facility to cook or access to the relevant supplies. "We've got some wonderful products," he says. "But look at Scotland - we fly the crabs out, lorry-loads of seafood going out to Spain and to Billingsgate"; while in the Hebrides, you're lucky if you can find a piece of frozen cod or haddock.

Cooper's own links with Scotland go back a long way. His mother was born in Lewis and brought up on Skye, where he has had a house for 25 years. He's written many books about the Isles, particularly the whisky, and still writes a weekly column for the paper Scotland on Sunday. He recalls the first prawn fishermen in the 1960s. "Those prawns had been there for hundreds of generations but nobody wanted to eat them. It wasn't until the package holiday industry began, and people discovered scampi, that they started wanting them." The sea urchins, the velvet crabs and the lobsters still don't get eaten, as does very little wild salmon.

He does recall a high incidence of home- cooking in the islands. The diet was fundamentally healthy. "You kept a cow which provided you with milk, cream, butter and crowdie (which is like cottage cheese). You had some sheep, a boat for bringing in fish such as haddock and herrings, and you grew kale and potatoes." There were no supermarkets then at all.

He is vehement about the power now wielded by supermarkets which has put the local greengrocer, the fishmonger, the baker and the butcher out of business: "I was talking to one supermarket the other day," he declares, "and they said they weren't in the business of telling the customer what they should eat - they provided them with a choice." Something of a cop- out in his eyes.

But there are glimmers of light. "Supermarkets are in fierce competition to be seen to be greener. Tesco's move at the end of last year to put certain organic produce in the supermarket at the same price as ordinary produce was a step in the right direction." He feels that supermarkets could now go further by not stocking those foods they know to be bad or by selling them at a premium.

He doesn't believe there is ever likely to be a return to large-scale organic farming, but farmers could have a better go at it. "It would be wrong to suggest that farmers don't have the highest moral principles," he adds carefully. What is called for is government initiative. Under New Labour? "I hope so."

He is a lifelong Labour supporter, and regards them as "the party who will address the most injustices and do more for people than any other party". Although The Food Programme is apolitical, there is a strong political undercurrent. One of his initial driving forces was the belief that there was so much to criticise about the Government handling of food. "You can't have a government department serving both industry and the consumer," he says. Now the need for that separation has been made very evident.

"The voice of the consumer has become very powerful over the last 18 years. All the parties now recognise the need to divorce the production of food from the consumer side. This is one thing the programme has proved: affairs being conducted behind locked doors isn't the way to proceed."

Talking to Derek Cooper OBE, it becomes clear how much his campaigns have improved the quality of the food available in this country, and how he has supported what is good in the way of small producers and retailers.

Yet Cooper says he is no gourmet himself. "I like food to be simple. I like to know how it's been produced, without exploitation, and that it's nutritious." And suddenly he waxes lyrical about baked beans. "I have to eat them when my wife's out," he says."She doesn't approve"