Shoppers are voting with their wallets for better produce. So are the campaigns of recent times working? Michael Durham reports

Five years ago, few people outside the Lakeland town of Kendal had heard of Plumgarth's Cumberland Sausage. Made from locally produced chopped pork, you buy it by the metre in a farm shop just outside the town. With traditional ingredients and concocted to a local recipe, it's a fine example of the kind of farm produce that once filled butchers shops across the region. But it was not receiving the recognition it deserved.

Five years ago, few people outside the Lakeland town of Kendal had heard of Plumgarth's Cumberland Sausage. Made from locally produced chopped pork, you buy it by the metre in a farm shop just outside the town. With traditional ingredients and concocted to a local recipe, it's a fine example of the kind of farm produce that once filled butchers shops across the region. But it was not receiving the recognition it deserved.

With the march of supermarkets, convenience food and mass-produced bangers, Plumgarth's Cumberland Sausage looked as if it might have had its chips. But a remarkable turnaround has taken place. In 2002, local farmer John Geldard approached the supermarket chain Asda with an idea for a "local food park" which would be a hub for farmers and cottage industries, and would also supply the Asda supermarkets with local produce. Regional specialties could be sold at the farm gate, but also reach the supermarket checkout.

In the past, a supermarket would undoubtedly have rejected the idea on cost grounds. Its customers wanted standard fare and they wanted it cheap, it would have argued. But today things are changing: for the first time in a generation, customers today want good local food and are prepared to pay more for it. Recognising the public appetite for regional produce, Asda decided to give it a go. Today, Plumgarth's Cumberland sausage is one of the best selling sausages on Asda's shelves, and one of more than 80 regional foods supplied by the food park. Nationally, Asda stocks 1,500 local products.

"Local sourcing is about being at the heart of the local community," Asda says. "We define local products as those that are made locally, grown locally and reared locally; are a local taste or delicacy and recognised by customers as local and for which there is significant customer demand.

"But local sourcing isn't just about being altruistic - there is a real business benefit behind it. We have calculated that there is a £160m per annum sales opportunity in selling local products."

Shoppers' taste in food is changing. After years of headlines about salmonella in eggs, BSE in beef, pesticide residues in vegetables and dangerous colourings such as Sudan 1 in chicken korma, we are beginning to think more carefully about the food we eat. And it is not just a question of locally produced Welsh lamb, Kentish apples and Herefordshire asparagus. Have we changed school dinners for good? Do we now care about the "food miles" clocked up by mange tout flown in from Kenya? Are organic vegetable and farmers' markets the future? Have the food debates really made a lasting impression?

Certainly, recent food scares have encouraged people to try organic food. Although organic food is still a tiny proportion of Britain's £85bn food market - and only four per cent of British farmland is cultivated organically, without artificial chemical pesticides - demand for organic produce has grown 10 fold in the last decade. In 1994, the market in organic food was worth just over £100m; last year it was £1.2bn. In 2003-4, sales grew by a further 10 per cent - almost £2m a week, according to the Soil Association.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, the country's leading organisation certifying and promoting organic food, believes the British food buying and eating habits are on the brink of fundamental change. "This is one of the moments in history where the possibility of really radical change exists. The beef crisis and everything that has gone wrong in agriculture for the last 15 years, from BSE to Sudan 1, have had an effect," he said.

"There is a thirst for something different. There is a realisation that food has become just another commodity, to be traded at the lowest possible price, that has entered the collective consciousness of the nation. The difference is that today, almost everybody is interested in the quality of their food, what's in it and where it comes from. People know something has to change."

In Holden's view, the key to moving from endless food crises and debates to lasting change is in education. "It's a matter of informing people of the facts. Only about 5 per cent of people are really well informed - the vast majority of people simply don't have a sophisticated understanding of what is wrong with the food industry. They know something is wrong. Give them the information and suddenly the potential for permanent change is enormous."

For pressure groups such as the Soil Association, campaigning for "real", unprocessed, pesticide-free food, one of the key issues is that in the age of packaged supermarket fare consumers have lost touch with the source of their food. Shoppers no longer expect potatoes to be covered in earth or know where their meat was butchered. Some children may never have seen a cow or know where a pint of milk comes from. "We need to start with the young - the children who are going to grow up into adult consumers. Every primary school child should visit a farm." Holden said.

"When I was five, we lived in a town, but my mother took me to a farm in Epping Forest to see the animals. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be a farmer. Nowadays, food production is an industrial process, we don't connect with farming practices and we have lost the tradition of locally produced good food. But all that can change. It is often in the relatively well educated, well off sections of society that revolutions are seeded, and that is the point we are at now. We are closer to the tipping point than you might think. We are still a small force in the world, but we are a force to be reckoned with."

Holden also believes in the value of working with supermarkets and the food industry to deliver affordable, better quality food. "Buying power is the agent that will change the world. If customers are prepared to pay more for better quality food, that's what we will get. If customers want local food, from organic producers, in season, then supermarkets will supply it to them. If we are a nation obsessed with cheap food - which is what we are now - then that is what we will get."

The success of Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign shows how cheap official British food policy has become, with measly sums allocated to children's food over the years, but also how ripe things are to change once consumers become aware of the issues. In this case, it took a celebrity chef to bully politicians into coming up with more money and better food. But has he changed school dinners for good?

Other initiatives in the pipeline suggest that Oliver's campaign stands a good chance of having a lasting impact. Although supermarkets and the public still have a long way to travel, many developments are under way that promise to gradually transform the British food culture from one of cheap, poor quality, not-so-healthy and occasionally even downright dangerous processed food, to the real thing.

Change is under way even in hospitals and prisons, as well as schools. Sir Don Curry, who chaired the 2002 government Commission on the Future of Farming and Food in the wake of the most recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, has now turned his attention to the procurement of food in institutions such as these outside the home - a significant proportion of the meals on plates served daily.

Sir Don, too, sees long term changes in food habits as a result of the long series of food debates from salmonella to Sudan 1. "One of the most promising areas is the much higher public interest in local and regional food - which is why retailers are becoming more interested in stocking it. They see it as part of a long term development in shopping habits.

"It's good news for regional food producers. The expansion in regional food in only two or three years since our report is staggering. Among shoppers, there is increasing concern about the "industrialisation" of food, about "food miles", about food being sourced from a long way away and having to travel long distances. Of course, consumers will continue to buy what's available in supermarkets. But in their heart of hearts, they know it is not always good.

"The other important trend is increasing awareness of obesity, diet, health, and the role of functional foods. It's been a growing concern for a long time but now it is being focused as a major issue.

"To be fair, the food industry has really worked hard on these issues. There's much greater awareness now within the food industry of what people want. Of course, there will still be issues and a lot of food will still be processed and a lot will still come from overseas. But it's changing. What we need next is an agreement between government and the food industry to establish an environment of trust."

David Hughes, professor of food marketing at Imperial College, London, also believes there are signs of fundamental change in the food industry, as well as a public appetite for safer, healthier and more sustainable food. He points out that even PepsiCo - "a company we love to hate, that has made its fortune on sugared water and fried salted snacks" - today recognises the health and well-being of its customers in its public statements.

"Some anti-globalisation campaigners like to pooh-pooh this kind of thing and say it is just paying lip service. But that is not the case. The fact is that the food industry is learning it has to deliver on social responsibility too. Things really are happening," says Prof Hughes.

He is optimistic that shoppers too are moving to a new way of seeing food: "As shoppers, we all act in two ways, as consumers and citizens. Particularly in Northern Europe, the consumer who wants cheap food has been holding down the citizen who wants responsible food. By the year 2020, the consumer and the citizen might shake hands.

"Concerns about the environment, animal welfare, fair trade, how suppliers are treated, the rural economy and health are restricted to the top-end, higher-educated, higher-income citizens at the moment, but that base will broaden with time. In the long run everybody - including those people who only care about the environment at weekends - will be asking where their food has come from. That's where the change is going to happen."

A HISTORY OF SCARES

Over the last 16 years, supermarkets and the food industry have been rocked by a series of scares, from salmonella and BSE to the Sudan 1 scandal in February.

Intensive food production, changing farm practices and the complexity of the modern food chain mean new problems will continue to come to light, despite efforts to improve food hygiene and safety.

The food scares of the 1990s have led to greater public recognition of food hygiene, awareness of modern "industrial" food production, and a growth in organic food sales.

The main food scares of recent times include:

1988: Salmonella in eggs

Then health minister Edwina Currie caused a farming crisis when she said "most egg production" in Britain was infected by salmonella. Egg sales halved and four-million hens were slaughtered. Over 30,000 cases of salmonella poisoning are still reported each year in England and Wales.

1989: Listeria in cheese and chicken

Supermarket soft cheeses and cooked chickens were found to be contaminated with the listeria bug, which can cause serious meningitis and septicaemia. The bug is passed on through poor hygiene practice.

1996: Mad Cow Disease

Public confidence in British beef was shaken when it was confirmed that bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) in cattle could spread to humans (as vCJD). Cattle over 30 months were removed from the human food chain. More than 20 people have died of vCJD.

1997: E. coli in meat

An increase in cases of E. coli 0157 poisoning led to public concern over the safety of meat. An outbreak in Scotland linked to a single butchers killed 20 people. The bug is linked to contamination at slaughterhouses and in butchers shops, undercooking and poor hygiene during food preparation.

Ongoing: Genetically Modified Food

Amid public concern over "Frankenstein foods", some scientists fear GM crops and animals could cross-breed with wild species and damage ecosystems. Last month, the final trial of a four-year series of experiments found that GM crops can be harmful to wildlife because the ultra-powerful weedkillers that the crops are engineered to tolerate would bring about further damage to a countryside already suffering from intensive farming.

2005: Sudan 1

Hundreds of common food products were recalled in February after they were found to contain banned food colouring Sudan 1, which has been linked to cancer in rats in lab tests.

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