Increasing access for everyone to good quality food to improve Scotland’s diet and food culture is the right objective. Tackling food poverty and strengthening food safety must be as big a priority as the commercial benefits to the food and drink industry.
The Scottish Government's new discussion document 'Becoming a Good Food Nation' includes:
•Creating a Scottish Food Commission to champion the importance of food to Scotland’s health, environment, economy and quality of life
•Promoting good food choices to consumers, enlisting the support of retailers, food producers and public bodies
•Having Scotland’s public sector lead by example with the NHS, local authorities and Scottish Government signing up to offer fresh, seasonal, local and sustainable produce
•Developing a specific children’s food policy in recognition of the impact of food on the health of young people and their ability to influence society’s behaviour for generations to come
•Working with communities to encourage the production and sale of more locally grown food
•Realising the economic benefits of a better domestic food culture for Scotland’s food and drink sector.
Scotland has one of the poorest diet-related health records in the world with obesity alone set to cost between £3bn and £5bn by 2030. Consumption of fruit and vegetables among the poorest 20% of Scots has fallen by a fifth since the recession and the subsequent welfare cuts kicked in. One third of cancers are diet related. So Food Nation is rightly about more than a new marketing strategy. In this context, it is at questionable if the initiative should come under the farming rather than the public health minister.
The discussion document broadly reflects the ideas promoted in UNISON Scotland's 'Food for Good' charter. We first launched this in 2008 and updated it last year, so government recognition is welcome.
We particularly agree that the public sector must lead by example, not only through public service catering, but also through procurement. However, financial pressures on school and hospital kitchens are making it very difficult to maintain standards. UNISON surveyed members working in catering and found that 54% say there have been major or severe cuts in the last 3-4 years. FoI requests showed that less than half of food is bought locally and off site cook chill catering is on the increase to cut costs.
The discussion document emphasises how well Scottish food and drink brands are doing worldwide, although whisky remains the dominant export. What the document doesn't recognise is the importance of strong regulation and food safety. It takes only one food scandal to wreck a brand and shortcuts here make no sense. For example, the Scottish Government has only recently pushed new regulations through parliament that will allow meat producers to mince thousands of pig tumours and abscesses into our pies and sausages. It's a bad food nation that puts production speed and profit before safety and quality.
So, let's welcome this initiative, while recognising that we have a lot more to do before we can claim to actually be a good food nation.