Supermarket power and dark secrets in our food chain – interview with Joanna Blythman

3 June 2015

Joanna Blythman is a pioneering British investigative food journalist, who has written for The Guardian and The Independent, and the author of several books including ‘How to Avoid GM Food’ and ‘Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’. Her most recent book ‘Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets’ exposes the disturbing truth behind the modern food processing industry.

In this interview, she shares her insights with Richard Glass on topics including supermarket power, abuses within our food supply chains, GM food lies and the uncertain future of food as we know it.


You have criticised the immense power of supermarkets, especially in terms of squeezing their suppliers. Is this ‘race to the bottom’ still prevalent and how can we stop it?

In the UK, things have changed for the better. Since the horsemeat episode, there has been a major breakdown in trust. Tesco, for example, was right in the headlights since it sold burgers made from horsemeat. As a result, Tesco is doing really badly here and all the supermarkets are reporting reduced sales. I think more and more people are receptive to the idea that supermarkets are conning us.

The alternatives are really coming through now, although it is still a David and Goliath battle. There are a lot more farmers’ markets and independent food businesses. The specialist food shops, like the butchers and fishmongers have managed to withstand the first wave of supermarkets. They’re actually doing quite well.

Ten years ago, when I wrote ‘Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’, lots of people said to me: “Isn’t it just too late, we can’t turn the clocks back.” Now, we’re seeing headlines like ‘Is this the end for Tesco?’ This model that has dominated food retailing for the last four or five decades is running into difficulties. I think we have reached ‘peak supermarket’ if you like. There is a lot of positive scope for smaller, more ethical, more radical alternatives.

You’ve talked of Lidl and Aldi having done the UK a service by breaking up shopping habits. Is there a danger of replacing one evil with another, putting even greater pressure on suppliers?

Absolutely! I liked the fact that Aldi came on the scene. They showed how expensive our supermarkets are. However, I have no belief that Aldi and Lidl are any solution to the situation. I don’t want them to get any bigger and I’m not convinced about the ethics behind the products. I think that Aldi and Lidl have had a really easy time, because they’re cheap and they’ve got great sales figures. All the business press talk about them lovingly. No one has really examined them because of this. I have conducted some research into tuna, for example, and I know that they haven’t investigated sourcing like the other major retailers. Personally, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if there were major ethical issues, such as human rights issues, environmental issues or problems with labour conditions in relation to products that are currently sold in Aldi and Lidl.

You’ve written about food workers on 12-hour shifts and minimum wages. We have recently launched a living wage campaign, mainly in supply chains in Global South. Can you foresee supermarkets or retailers ever taking responsibility for this or is it a losing battle?

No, I don’t think it’s a losing battle. I think they can be made to do it. People have had a very comfortable view of supermarkets and they think that, on the whole, they bring jobs to communities or that they maybe pay minimum wage. They expect people to be properly paid and they’re shocked when they hear about gangmasters and people working under poor conditions. I think it can be very effective. I think the key is information and facts. We need to put pressure on the politicians. We need to have more regulatory oversight.

Have supermarkets got the main responsibility to ensure living wages and how can you prevent them from just passing the buck lower down the supply chain?

I think that if they sell a product, they have to guarantee that it’s an ethical product. Ethical has to mean a minimum wage or a living wage. Supermarkets tend to say they haven’t got control over the brands. That is true to a certain extent. However, if they do discover any problems with wages they can delist them, so they do have ultimate control over brands. I think in terms of contracts with suppliers for their own label brands, they can absolutely insist on living wages and they can do their own independent checks. I think most of the exploitation takes place further down the supply chain, in the field, for example where you have people working on piece rate pay. The further away it is from us, the more likely it is to go wrong. Therefore, there is more necessity for us to question products that are sourced further afield and not just believe reassurances that they were ethically produced and people were properly paid.

You’ve talked about wanting to break the vice-like grip of supermarkets and that if we continue to rely on faceless people from faraway places to feed us we cannot hope to trace the provenance of what’s on our plates. What do these faceless people in faraway places do in this scenario?

Well, I think the main thing is that countries have to produce to feed their own people. Export should be an icing on the cake, a secondary stream. The key thing has to be growing sustainable food locally, which can feed the local population. In quite a few countries in the world, farmers are being encouraged to grow very profitable export crops, such as quinoa in Peru. However, the profit from that is creamed off by the retailers and the exporters. First of all, grow food for yourself and secondly if you’re going to export food it has to be within a system that makes it possible for people to actually see the profits and see the added value back in their communities.

Fair trade should be a minimum requirement, so there is at least some sort of fair price and the possibility of a social premium. For example, I went to the Windward Islands and saw fair trade banana production and spoke to growers. They’ve been able to build things for the communities, such as little healthcare clinics. Food workers have to see the benefits back in their communities. I think exports have got to come after food security and many countries have actually been encouraged to export at the price of their own food security. If we now look at what’s happening with climate change around the world then we see that this emphasis on exports has put people in a very precarious position and many countries are unable to feed their own country and are needing to import.

The world population is increasing, with an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. This is often used as motivation behind the promotion of GM foods. For example, the Dutch Government website on GM crops states: ‘Biotechnology in agriculture and horticulture can help solve problems such as food shortage’. Is this a false argument?

I think it’s a real case of emotional blackmail. The big companies like Monsanto and Syngenta have always created this kind of fairytale that GM food is the magic wand that is going to help feed the world. However, GM hasn’t delivered on its promises, so all these miracle products that were going to be created by GM have not actually materialised. Meanwhile, the traditional plant breeding techniques which farmers have been using down the centuries just to improve their crops have led to fantastic breakthroughs. Organic breeders, for example, have produced blight resistant potatoes without the need for GM,

We’re also beginning to realise now that most GM crops, especially the most planted ones like Monsanto’s GM corn, are absolutely dependent on the weedkiller glyphosate. So rather than a promise that GM was going to mean that we wouldn’t have to use pesticides at all, we’re actually using more pesticides. The health consequences of that are frightening. Last month (March 2015), the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. So in other words, we’re pumping carcinogens on our crops in the name of GM. We are being left with a chemical legacy.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) have said that agro-ecological farming initiatives are more likely to feed the world then the magic bullet GM-type approach. I think we are gradually realising that if smallholder farmers are given just a little bit of help in growing the right sort of products that they will be better in putting food in mouths than these big corporations, which are essentially run by fantasists who want to make profits and will say anything to get their way.

Dr Don Huber from Purdue University in the US has warned of the link between GM foods and the 600% increase in autism since 2002. You have also mentioned a Canadian report showing traces of GM pesticide in 93% of babies. Why is this allowed?

That is down to the lobbying power of these big corporations. They are so immensely powerful, particularly in America. Europe has done well to resist and upheld higher standards on things like pesticides, additives and the labelling of GM ingredients. However, it’s constantly bombarded by these greedy and, I would say, psychopathic, corporations who just want to get their products to market irrespective of the effects they have on the human race or the planet.

The lobbying power is huge in Europe. There are between 20,000-30,000 lobbyists permanently situated in Brussels, whose job it is to lobby MEPs and bureaucrats to get their products on the market and ensure favourable legislation. However, I think in Europe there is a strong resistance to going down the American food path.

The Translantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP), the biggest free-trade agreement in living memory, is becoming a way of pushing the corporations and their products on the European market. This will dilute standards that have been hard fought for. For example, TTIP might make it easier to do away with the need for labelling of GM foods. That would be one possibility. It will also include lots of whistleblower gagging type of rules that will make it harder for anyone to investigate the food industry or challenge it. The TTIP is really an important fight for anyone who cares about food and environment. And we just had a global day of action on 18 April 2015, which was fantastic. People realise what’s going on here. It’s just a constant fight.

For a recent Guardian article, you visited a food trade fair and talked of the ‘cognitive dissonance in providing components not only for your food, but also for your fly spray, scratch-resistant car coating, paint or glue’. To what extent could this be the future of food?

Before I went to this Frankfurt trade fair, I had this image of how the modern food manufacturing system works. However, what I hadn’t really understood is that you have the supermarkets, and then you have the manufacturers who service them, who are completely faceless and anonymous. Food ingredients, to my mind, mean things like beef or eggs, but chemical components are used in processed food. This food ingredients fair I went to is essentially an arms fair for food manufacturers: the place where they buy the weapons to create their products.

For these chemical companies, food manufacturing is just one aspect of their business. They’ve got various income streams, so they’ll be very active, for example, in cosmetics or in paints. They sell chemicals and that’s mainly what food manufacturers are now buying. They’re not buying food in the normal sense any longer.

What we are seeing now is that processed foods are really just a reconfiguration of ingredients that have been drawn from nature and then reassembled as processed foods in a much more profitable form. Unless we start realising what is going into processed food and start challenging that, food manufacturers, chemical companies and big corporations will slowly, but surely, privatise the food chain and make it thoroughly unnatural.

Your book ‘Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets’ details the way food manufacturers hide additives and E numbers by replacing them with benign alternatives through their ‘clean label’ programme. Could you give some of the worst instances of this?

I was quite shocked by the things that sound healthy. Looking at the ingredients label of salads from Marks & Spencer’s, for example, there are things like lemon concentrate and rosemary extract, which sound like something you might have on a yoga retreat. They sound like superfoods, but I started looking into what they really were. For example, if we take lemon concentrate, this is just a flavouring that has virtually no connection with the natural fruit. Rosemary extract, which sounds like a slow food ingredient made in Tuscany by artisans, is just a preservative. To make it they start with dried rosemary and then they put it through this extremely secret chemical process and they finally extract two chemicals from it. By the time you’ve extracted these chemicals, it’s either a brown powder or maybe a brown liquid. It does not have a rosemary flavour or rosemary scent, but it does act as a preservative.

I wonder if we actually know the long-term health effects of some of these chemicals that they are putting into foods, just like we didn’t really know the long-term effects of GM foods?

We’ve been forced to participate in a fifty-year-long experiment. We are eating lots of things that we never used to eat before. It’s really obvious, to my mind, that there could be a connection with increased processed food consumption and contemporary health problems, the most obvious ones being obesity and cancer. The level of synthetic chemicals that people are now consuming could be having a major impact on our health. The other thing is that you now have a lot of people reporting food intolerances and allergies.

We haven’t taken it seriously. The whole history of food processing is to get something dodgy onto the market and only take it off the market if you’re absolutely forced to. Hence, we have now had lots of things that have been proven to be dangerous subsequently taken off the market, but meanwhile we’ve all been eating them.

Visit Joanna Blythman’s website to find out more about her journalism and publications.

Sign Fairfood’s Lidl petition demanding the supermarket pay a living wage in their supply chains.