Cultures of Consumption

Working Paper Series

Food and Health Wars: a modern drama of consumer sovereignty

Tim Lang
Professor of Food Policy, City University

Professor Tim Lang gave this paper as a public lecture in the series organised by the Cultures of Consumption programme (ESRC-AHRB) on 17 November 2003, at The Royal Society, London.

Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author(s)

Food and Health Wars: a modern drama of consumer sovereignty

Tim Lang
Professor of Food Policy
City University

Paper based on a lecture given in the ESRC Cultures of Consumption lecture series, at the Royal Society, November 17 2003


No area of contemporary consumer capitalism has been more contested recently than food. It has been characterised by, at the ‘hard’ end, campaigns, boycotts, petitions, scandals, political actions, and, at the ‘soft’ end, by demands for improved education, information, labels, skills,…all leading to responses from the State and supply chain ranging from reforms to revolutions in governance and style, not least by consumers themselves. This has been a truly dynamic area of consumer life and policy. For the last two decades, consumer champions have had a field-day world-wide attacking food evils. They have targeted issues ranging from new adulterations, hi-tech developments and food safety infringements to price fixing, food poverty and old-fashioned fraud, such as selling unfit meat.

Dismissing some of these accusations, while accepting others as the result of ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise sound basket of produce, proponents of the food industry initially responded fiercely. Although privately sometimes perplexed and hurt, they rejected the accusation that they fail the consumer. How can this attack be fair when supermarkets offer 25,000+ items for consumers to graze? When choice rules supreme? When food has dropped in price in many societies?...