The high moral tone about food quality that has been adopted by the grocery retailer, Iceland, is both cynical and misleading. Malcolm Walker, the company's opportunistic chairman and chief executive, is simply capitalising on irrational food fears and scare-mongering in an attempt to increase Iceland's profits.
It was Iceland, of course, who claimed to be the first supermarket chain to remove genetically modified material from their own brands, emphasising the point with a blaze of media hype and publicity stunts. When Greenpeace CEO Baron Melchett was remanded in jail for his part in the destruction of GE maize crops it was Walker who engineered a photocall outside of the gates of Norwich prison to deliver a cake with a large file sticking out of the top – a gesture which won him no friends.
Now Iceland has turned its attention to another 'easy' target, that of artificial flavours and colourings – those dreaded E numbers. Quoting a Mintel survey showing a rise in public concern over such ingredients, it claims to have removed all of them from its own brands. But why was the public concerned about these things in the first place? The fears have not been driven by objective evidence of their harmfulness but by media-fuelled scare stories and post-BSE doubts about food in general.
The point about E numbers is that in order to have a number in the first place, and therefore to be included in food products, the ingredients must be shown, objectively, to be safe. We may, of course, prefer not to eat foods which contain such chemicals. That's why we have labelling. We can choose, for example, whether we eat a dessert which contains an artificial red dye, or one which is 'naturally' coloured with ground-up female cochineal beetles. Iceland, however, seek to ensure that we have no such choice.
The idea that Iceland's products are somehow 'additive-free' is also quickly dented when one reads the list of ingredients on the packaging. Artificial preservatives remain in most of their own-brands, and for good reason. They are there to prevent spoilage and potential poisoning.
In essence Iceland's 'Food You Can Trust' campaign hinges around largely cosmetic makeovers of some of their products – a little less salt here, a little less fat there, and a few harmless chemicals abandoned in the pursuit of facile eco-correctness. The net impact of all this does not allay unfounded fears about food one jot. Rather, it increases them. It heightens our sensitivity to risks which are not there and maintains a quite unnecessary and damaging neuroticism about what we should and should not eat.
At the Social Issues Research Centre we firmly believe that people should be provided with accurate, science-based information which they can confidently use to make lifestyle choices. We do not campaign for or against any types of food, brands or production processes. Our primary concern with the current debate on food is that it has been hijacked by narrowly focused consumer and single-interest groups who peddle environmentalist or healthist dogma as 'fact'. Rational debate about food safety and quality has been replaced by irrational scaremongering. And when a food retailer such as Iceland rides on the back of such hysteria to further its own gains, we must surely take exception.