Covid-19 baking

Covid-19: practical lessons for the ‘food police’

In this opinion piece, South African food science consultant, Nigel Sunley, marvels at SA’s resilient food supply chain and ponders, in the wake of Covid-19, how much consumer behaviour has been at odds with popular sentiment on what constitutes ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ food.

One of the by-products of the Covid-19 pandemic is the bombardment from all sides with information, misinformation, disinformation and, simply, overload. While not wanting to add to this, my intent here is to look at some of the implications of the current situation for those of us involved in feeding us all, as well as those well-meaning, but impractical, idealists demanding changes in the manner in which we do it.

I think there are two overriding current considerations for those of us involved in food supply. The first is purely scientific in nature; namely to heave a massive sigh of relief and thank the scientists who have proven, as unequivocally as is ever possible in science, that coronavirus is not spread directly via consumption of food.

Had this not been the case, the pandemic would unquestionably have assumed cataclysmic proportions – the mass disruption to our food chain and starvation, irrespective of any direct effects from Covid-19.

There are enough challenges feeding the South Africans sadly suffering from economically-driven food deprivation – so we can be truly grateful that food is not a direct driver of infection.

Secondly, the challenges for food retailers, the food industry and their suppliers have rather been of a people-related nature. It is all well and good to have ‘essential goods & services’ status, but spare a thought for the practical difficulties faced by labour-intensive operations in particular; where providing those goods and services in an acceptable manner is complicated by the imperative to provide adequate protection to employees, and the related costs.   

During my infrequent visits to supermarkets, I am impressed by the bountiful availability and variety of good quality fresh and processed food. No doubt, there are occasional minor shortages, but it really seems to be business as usual in the food supply chain. As such, I think we owe a second vote of thanks and congratulations to all those involved in achieving this.

It’s reassuring to observe that the food supply system in its present form, while always in need of improvement, is fundamentally robust and well managed and that we cannot do without it, particularly at difficult times.

It also provides a demonstrable and very tangible response to those members of the ‘food police’ whose favourite pastime is to find fault with it and demand radical change, ie downsizing, back-to-nature and other idealistic practices.

I have long been amazed, and frustrated, that the most vociferous of these people have likely never been in a food factory, let alone in a consumer focus group or similar gathering; that they so obviously lack real understanding about the system they are so quick to criticise, and the preferences of the people on the receiving end of it.

I wonder how we might have fared if their advocated changes were in place during the current pandemic? Not very well I’d vouch, and widespread shortages and starvation would have become the norm.

Somehow I suspect that a supply chain based on grow-your-own, farmers’ markets and cottage-food industries, whatever their ideological appeal may be to the affluent ‘chattering classes’ and loony leftists, would not have been able to deliver!

The current situation should also provide a salutary lesson in the area of consumer behaviour to the other members of the food police who would have us dump fat, sugar, salt, soft drinks and ideally all processed food from our diets.

Two human realities

Two particular current behavioural realities should be apparent to them. Firstly, it is clear that people under Covid-19 lockdown and related stresses are looking for comfort and gratification and have indulged in higher consumption of snack foods, confectionery and similar items.

Frankly, these are not great from a nutritional perspective but are both palatable and affordable – and who can blame us under the circumstances? I somehow doubt that stressed-out ‘lockdowners’ are going to magically increase their consumption of those supposedly good-for-you items so beloved of the food police. On the contrary, people want a bit of indulgence, not just under stress, but at regular intervals – behavioural reality number 1.

Secondly, those same food police are constantly enjoining us to cook our own food and not rely on the wicked, evil food industry to do it for us. The current situation, where people have tended to find unexpected time on their hands, is a valuable test bed for this seemingly praiseworthy concept. What has happened in practice?

Yes, there has been more home cooking, but the real area that has apparently skyrocketed is home baking with cakes, biscuits and other yummies pouring out of home kitchens. Sales of the relevant ingredients, particularly the dreaded sugar and flour, have soared. Have home cooks put similar enthusiasm into the production of vegetarian burgers, lentil stew and sugar-free wholegrain muesli? I rather doubt it – behavioural reality number 2.   

Scapegoating the food industry

I suppose it was inevitable that the food police would also at some stage want to apportion some blame of the current pandemic on the food industry. This has now duly happened under the auspices of the well-known British academic, Graham Macgregor, whose anti-industry paranoia is well known.

He is co-author of a recent and much-publicised paper in the British Medical Journal highlighting the increased susceptibility of persons suffering from obesity to contracting Covid-19. This is seemingly medically valid, but then comes his usual tirade blaming the food industry for obesity, with minimal or no mention of behavioural issues such as those outlined above, lack of exercise, genetic factors, poor nutritional education and a little matter of personal responsibility.

The UK Food & Drink Federation has quite understandably pushed back vigorously against the paper concerned. The food industry is certainly not perfect, but the stuck-record approach and lack of practical solutions that are the hallmarks of these campaigners eventually become a little frustrating.

However, it is probably too much to expect from the MacGregor’s of this world any grudging acknowledgement that the industry is actually doing rather a good job under very trying circumstances. Their focus will remain on a blunt-object approach of regulation, regulation and more regulation, and recent events in SA should also be a lesson to those with aspirations in this area.

While not wishing to debate the merits or otherwise of the attempted prohibition on the sale of tobacco and alcoholic beverages, one thing is manifestly clear: any attempt to deprive consumers of something they enjoy by formal legal means on the grounds that “we know what is best for you” is destined for failure.

Those same consumers will take steps to ensure they get it, whatever the means. Only via proper education will those same consumers be empowered to choose to reduce or eliminate consumption of anything that is supposedly bad for them. It will be their choice and not that of regulation fanatics, particularly when it comes to something as complex and difficult to control as food consumption.

To those same fanatics, I would say that any attempt to control food consumption by formal regulatory means will result not only in laws without any credibility but, more importantly, they will simply not achieve their objectives. 

A hefty dose of pragmatism is needed here to acknowledge behavioural realities and consumer preferences, rather than resorting to ivory tower-derived ideology and industry bashing. It is very noticeable that those promoting regulation tend to come from the world of tertiary education in public health nutrition and are spectacularly ignorant of the realities of consumer behaviour, the food supply chain, food science and technology, and the actual implementation of food legislation.

They are noticeably silent when it comes to turning their beloved ‘policies’ into practical action. Nor should they sit on their laurels regarding the limited number of regulatory initiatives implemented so far. These represent the lowest of low hanging fruit; their effects to date are at best unproven and any broader based regulatory initiatives will become increasingly impractical to implement.

Surely, the efforts of those promoting regulatory solutions should rather be focused on what they are actually paid to do; namely educate people rather than attempt to compensate for their own shortcomings as educators with unmanageable regulations?

Rather than conclude on such a confrontational note, I do, however, observe that one of the few good things likely to come out of the current situation is a greater awareness by the public of factors influencing their health, and a greater willingness to learn more and take action where required in their personal lives.

This provides a real opportunity to include a greater focus on health education and eating habits that can be addressed to a hopefully more receptive and sensitised public. That, combined with real efforts by the industry to continue constructive actions to improve nutritional quality and also do their own little bit towards consumer education, may go some way down the path to the positive outcomes we all seek.

About Nigel Sunley:

NIgel Sunley

Nigel Sunley is a highly experienced food scientist, with extensive commercial experience, and is one of SA’s foremost labelling and regulatory experts. See more here

E-mail: [email protected]