Our food supply chain is failing poorer people, as consumers and as workers

The food chain and how it operates presents permanent and long-term problems for people in poverty, says Julia Unwin.

Poorly paid workers and a poorly controlled food supply chain – is it any wonder that quality, choice and affordability can end up past their sell-by date?

Every few years the food supply chain hits the public consciousness: scandals like salmonella, BSE, Sudan Red and now horsemeat trigger something akin to moral panic. More or less reassuring statements are duly issued from government and the food industry alike, with a promise of tighter controls in the future.

It is not surprising that our response to any problem in the food chain is so immediate and so visceral. We need food to sustain life; it is at the heart of the way we live and putting food on the table is how we show people we love and care.

But for people in poverty the food chain and how it operates present permanent and long term problems. We know that poorer people struggle to pay for food, and report after report has warned of the tough choices poor families make about eating. Always pushed into the cheapest places, they are at risk of eating the poorest quality food.

We know too about the exponential rise in the numbers of food banks offering a vital service, but taking away the very sense of control that we all expect when we buy food. And we know from the work of Professor Tim Lang about food deserts: those parts of the country where finding decent, affordable food is impossible and getting more so – the very places where the poorest people live. Poor nutrition is rightly described as the new malnutrition of our times.

And finally, a vicious irony of ironies: it is the food chain which employs people who are so very poor. Whether it is the real scandal of forced labour which is such a disgraceful and appalling aspect of our food chain, or the low pay in agriculture, food processing, retail and food service – the ‘working poor’ are concentrated in the food industry.

In an environment where both food safety and food security now form part of our daily diet for discussion, it is time we joined up the dots and recognised that our food supply chain is not meeting the needs of poorer people, as consumers or as workers.

Julia Unwin was Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency, 2003–2006.