We won't swallow any more lies about food

Britain is in the grip of an eating disorder - and we don't trust the `experts' about safety
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The Independent Online
We eat too many things that are bad for us. Our children don't eat enough vegetables. A generation is being reared on Coco Pops and turkey dinosaurs. We are no longer sure of what's in the food we eat. No one will tell us for sure whether certain brands of baby milk reduce fertility. Anorexia and bulimia are reaching epidemic proportions. Every week some flash new restaurant opens. Super chefs are pop stars. Those in pursuit of a literary career now write restaurant reviews rather than television reviews. Television is full of cooks and cranks and cooking programmes. Half of us are overweight. We all buy cookery books but sit down at night to eat pre-prepared chill-cook food. More than a million cows so far have been culled in an effort to rid the national herd of BSE. Eighteen people have died from E coli food poisoning. Food may well be the new sex (and drugs and rock'n'roll) but it is also the new death.

If eating disorder can be classified as a perverse relationship to food, we are in the grip of a national eating disorder. Our relationship to what we put inside us has never been so mediated, so filtered through layers of guilt and anxiety, so talked about, so full of pleasure and danger. Food, we are persuaded by the luscious recipe books and Sunday supplements, will give us the ultimate gratification. It will enhance a convivial lifestyle. We can almost forget ourselves for a moment if we char-grill enough vegetables. We could almost be foreign and free and sit in the sun eating olives all day. Eating well means living well and living well means, as far as I can tell, living elsewhere, but never mind that, pass the polenta, play the peasant and enjoy.

Once roused from such daydreams though, we remember that food will do for us. Too much of it will kill us. Not enough of it will kill us. And just one bite of poisoned flesh will turn us into zombies. Eggs, beef, meat pies are the big players in the food nightmare. Nothing is safe, not even our Sunday dinner. Nothing is sacred, not even baby milk which contains phthalates, chemicals which in the end may just stop you having babies.

The middle classes, who hopelessly believe that you are what you eat, swap tips on how to mash swedes for their discerning offspring. They check labels, buy organic poultry, rave on about their personal fishmongers and carry on tucking in. The working classes or the underclasses or the fiscally challenged or whatever we call them these days, eat as well or as badly as they ever have. They can't afford to mess about trying new things. They can't afford to be that healthy. Nutritionists try to educate them but no one gives them any more money so its a lost cause. Anyway where would we be without stories of deep-fried Mars bars, how could we be such snobs if we didn't know folk with worse diets than us?

Yet as food-scare stories continue to dominate the headlines, the Government as usual has come up with too little too late in the shape of a new specialist appointment - that of food safety chief. This new post will mean heading a council of independent experts with the right to publicly criticise government ministers. As this was announced by one of the least trusted of ministers, Douglas Hogg, one wonders if this is the way to rehabilitate public trust in the food industry and its products.

Although independent of government, critics claim this new council is not independent enough of the commercial interests of the huge food industry. They would prefer something more along the lines of the American model, in which the Food and Drug Administration operates as a regulatory agency with the power to set standards of safety and launch investigations into potential health risks. Once more then, we are being asked to rely on the same government that got us into this fine mess to get us out again. Does no one realise that with each and every food scare and blunder, there has been a fundamental loss of faith in the Government's ability, any government's ability, to be impartial in the face of pressure from organised business interests? While environmentalists have long played this card, the production and consumption of food is slowly but surely being drawn into the argument. As no one can avoid eating, this is an issue that politicises everyone.

Just as a mother endeavours to feed her child to the best of her ability so too do we expect the government to do all it can to ensure that its citizens eat food that is not toxic. Failing to do so appears as a fundamental breech of trust. Food as we know carries all sorts of primal meanings about love, comfort and security. The result of all this food fear appears to be an ever more obsessive interest in the stuff, but so far this interest has largely been privatised. Everyone has their own set of rules about what they will or won't eat. Certain ingredients are fetishised, tastes regress to nursery food - to gravy and custard, suet and treacle as though food from another age could never be impure. Ageing models claim that they don't diet, they merely detox to cleanse their bodies. Chefs fiddle with improbable garnishes and tell us that there are no great women chefs because such greatness is in the DNA; meanwhile women continue to buy and cook what most of us actually stuff our faces with. Just as our sexual fantasies may bear little relation to our sexual reality, so too have our imaginations been aroused by endless food fantasies; but then this of course is what capitalism excels in.

The untrammelled free market has given us more and more choice but made us feel less and less safe. We fear that what we put inside ourselves is tainted, that it will make our children sickly rather than strong. We fear the cycle of purge and binge, the culture of bulimia in which nourishment is replaced by sugar-rushes and junk food highs, in which we eat to excess or not at all. We feel now about food as we once did about the environment - that we have lost all connection with nature.

To reconnect though requires collective rather than individual solutions. As cosy as she may be, no amount of Delia Smith can reassure you. If the Government cannot act on our behalf, then collective action must do the job. Government-appointed regulators are likely to be met with the same distrust as any other official of a government that took so long to act on information about BSE. Asking that our food be safe may not at first appear a political issue but is has become one. After all if the hand that feeds you, feeds you lies, the only option left is to bite it.