Caroline Spelman speech at the Smith Institute – Feeding Britain 2: What consumers want – ‘From satiety to surfeit – rebalancing our relationship with food.’

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Thank you Nick, and thank you for inviting me here today.

Thank you Nick, and thank you for inviting me here today.

Food is a incredibly complex subject - both psychologically and physiologically.

The way it grown, traded and consumed has a direct impact on our environment, our economies and our health.

And, as Dalton (Philips) points out in the first chapter of _Feeding Britain, _cost and supply are increasingly affecting food security abroad and food choices here at home.

Food, in fact, lies at the centre of a very complex web that extends to every aspect of our existence, from the state of our countryside to the length of our lives.

That’s why this coalition Government has made it a priority to support British food and farming and encourage sustainable food production.

Through the recession and - now - in its difficult aftermath, our farmers have shown personal tenacity and economic resilience.

That’s not just good news for the industry, but for all of us.

Because food production and procurement is right at the heart of creating the leaner, greener economy we all need now.

Of driving down food miles, reducing carbon emissions and helping local economies grow.

I’m thinking here of initiatives like the move by catering managers at Nottingham City Hospital and the Queen’s Medical Centre to switch to sourcing fresh ingredients from local producers.

90% of the fresh food these hospitals use now comes from the East Midlands.

There have been savings all round as a result.

Local producers who hovered on the verge of bankruptcy have saved jobs.

150,000 food miles have been saved.

And I bet the patients of these two hospitals are stronger and healthier for eating seasonal, fresh produce than they would otherwise have been.

And that, surely, is the point.

Because all too often when we look at this complex subject we forget we are literally what we eat, and that at every stage of our lives, our food choices affect our health.

This is pure cradle to grave stuff -  as I’m sure Sue from the Royal College of Midwives and Nadra from the National Care Association can attest.

From the impact of pre-natal diets on birth weight to staying healthier for longer in the last stages of our lives, what we eat affects our life chances.

But in this country our relationship with food is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

British children are getting fatter at twice the rate of their American counterparts - over a third of British children between five and 13 are already overweight or obese.

Diabetes and other diet related illnesses are on the up - across all income bands and ethnicities.

The costs to the NHS of dealing with them run into billions.

While the costs to individuals and their families are incalculable.

My own constituency, Meriden, is in the Borough of Solihull, where differences in life expectancy are almost a decade between wards.

This is a modern tragedy.

Those lost decades are the grandparental years - when people should be playing with their grandchildren and still be fit enough to enjoy them.

And while some of this is clearly due to other factors, the impact of diet on life-expectancy is well established.

For too many people, food has gone from being something that sustains life to a silent assassin.

We need to rebuild our relationship with food and its purpose.

As Andrew Lansley said last week in his first speech on public health, we need to empower people to make the changes that will really make a difference to the nation’s lives.

And when we look at effect, we need also to look at cause.

We need to recognise the reality behind people’s food choices.

We have all - I know I have all too often - stumbled around a supermarket late on a Friday evening after an exhausting week choosing food on automatic pilot.

Under these circumstances, we not going to analyse the salt, sugar and fat content of what we buy - particularly when too many labels seem to require a Phd in nutritional chemistry to actually understand.

Under these circumstances, too, we are unlikely to suddenly decide to switch to a new and healthier diet.

Research last month showed that the major reason people buy what they buy isn’t sell-by dates, brand confidence or even nutrition - it’s habit.

An overwhelming 97% of us buy what we buy because it’s what we’ve bought before.

In reality, our food choices are made on the same basis as most of the rest of our life choices  - based on what’s available, accessible and affordable - with the possible exception of our spouses.

So my key message is ‘ Let’s make it easy for people’.

We need to urge the case for honest labelling across the entire spectrum of food products.

If someone wants to buy Fairtrade or Red Tractor, it’s made easy for them to do so - that information’s on the label.

Whatever choices consumers want to make about the food they buy for themselves and their families should be made equally easy.

Low fat, low salt and low sugar labels should mean exactly that and  the presence of saturated fats shouldn’t be disguised in language no one but a chemist can understand.

And if someone wants the quality and animal welfare guarantees that come with British meat and dairy we should make that easy too.

That’s why my Department, and the Department of Health, will work with industry to introduce clearer food labelling, showing consumers which country the meat and dairy products on our supermarket shelves came from.

Manufacturers have steadily been cutting back on high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fats in their products for years. But they need to go further and they need to go faster - they have a responsibility to their consumers too.

Retailers have made huge strides in the last few years. Virtually every major supermarket now sells perfectly edible but less than beautiful fruit and veg without the ‘pretty premium’, allowing lower income households to eat more healthily.

These are all trends in the right direction - positive steps to rebuild the link between food as something that sustains health and life.

It’s a link we all have a particular responsibility to build for the next generation.

Programmes like the one run by Morrisons, introducing pupils to growing their own fruit and vegetables.

Parents rediscovering the pleasure of cooking and passing these skills on to their children.

And work done by Agricultural societies and charities like the RHS to teach children about where their food comes from.

Because it is only by reconnecting the purpose of food and its provenance that we can start to rebuild a more balanced relationship between our food, our local economies and our health.

Thank you.