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Does fast food deserve its poor reputation?

Alex James sparked outrage last week when he wrote in praise of fast-food giants in the Sun. Tim Hayward and Jay Rayner debate our relationship with fast food

Tim Hayward, food writer and editor of Fire & Knives food quarterly:

Unless you’ve been trapped down a well all week, I assume you’ve seen Alex James’s piece in the Sun. It’s a stonking great opus, in which he’s managed to get himself invited into Greggs’, McDonald’s and KFC’s factories and concludes that their food is great and an all-round blessing on humanity. At one point – and this is the one that caused Twitter to melt – he avers that McDonald’s is in some ways “very similar to a Michelin-starred restaurant”. I’m finding this frankly fascinating. It’s got the online food community up in arms like nothing else I’ve seen for a long time – there’s a really angry backlash against “one of us” supporting the fast-food companies, particularly in such a powerful medium. Personally, I reckon he’s wrong to the point of being irresponsible to defend fast food in our largest circulation tabloid, but the fact that he is, that the Sun wants to publish it and their readers want to read it indicates that the national conversation about food, from media and government, is catastrophically missing the most important audience.

Jay Rayner, Observer food writer

I’m not about to defend Alex James’s latest infantile contribution to food journalism, but you are right. The prominence of his piece does flag up the fact that much of the earnest debate about food in this country has become akin to a clinking middle-class cocktail party, which simply ignores and excludes vast slabs of the population. It is, for what it’s worth, also grossly hypocritical; we both know that wherever food obsessives gather together, online or otherwise, they will occasionally let the mask slip and boast of all the “bad” things they have eaten; about their love for sausage rolls, and the relative merits of Burger King over McDonald’s. We need a more sophisticated debate over our food culture, one that faces up to a few realities. Of course the big fast-food multiples have too many outlets – a proliferation of these places in deprived inner-city areas is a clear marker of food poverty – and planning laws could be used to tackle that. But, at the same time, Greggs genuinely does make a point of using the local produce our guardians of food culture bang on about. Likewise, McDonald’s pretty much created the market for free-range eggs in the UK when it swapped supply overnight from battery eggs in the early 00s. They have awards from Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA to show for it. Our national conversation about food must start to think seriously about the industrial food process, and the benefits it can bring to the culture. Otherwise it will go nowhere, and fast.

TH: I think you’ve nailed it with that word “industrial”. When food is so emotional and personal for food lovers, the idea that it can be industrially created with financial profit as the motive is easy to hate. It’s also impossible to avoid. I think the 1851 census was the first in which more than half of the UK population lived in cities. Since that point, concern for a direct “relationship” with food has been a minority interest. For the majority, the chicken is practically irrelevant; the retailer or processor is who we get to engage with. I’m not so much of a dewy-eyed utopian that I want to see us return to rearing our own pigs and bartering for oats, but surely, once most of our food is going through industrial processes, it becomes subject to market forces. A food processor or manufacturer will always profit from meeting our baser tastes while driving down costs – hence mass obesity. Under those circumstances, patronising though it is, it becomes the responsibility of the – admittedly wholly middle-class – food media to speak out against “big food”, or at least not promote it in such an unqualified way. Hell, you’ve got me thinking in terms of “betrayal” now.

JR: There can be a lot to hate about the industrial food process. Believe me, I’ve spent enough time investigating the impact of the multiples at every stage of the food supply chain to know that change is vital. But the reality is that there has always been an industrial process, since the very first Egyptian sowed his very first crops on the banks of the Nile. An industrial – for which read large-scale – food production system, responding to the demands of the market, is not necessarily evil. Indeed, on a small, overpopulated island like ours it’s vital. The issue is, how do we engage with it? We can completely turn away from the likes of Greggs, McDonald’s and KFC with our noses in the air (while, as I say, filling our pockets with flaky sausage rolls as a mark of our enthusiasm for food). Or we can get a little more sophisticated about it, stop being patronising and ask why it is that vast slabs of the population have no interest in the kind of saliva-flecked conversations you and I have, and ask what sort of industrial food process we want. In short, if not Greggs, then what?

TH: You’re arguing me back into an unattractive stance of sophomoric Marxism but, truth is, I’m too cynical to believe businesses of that scale could ever make a change that would reduce profits while generally benefiting society. They just can’t – it’s like expecting bankers to take a pay cut. The only things that will get them to change are legislation (yeah, right) or public opinion. And that means that opinion formers such as Alex James and the Sun are hugely powerful. I’d argue that the main, proven way to engage with a company is by media pressure on behalf of consumers, which in my book puts James’s “roll over and tickle my tummy” piece way out beyond irresponsible.

JR: Well, Tim, you have grown the right sort of beard and started dressing like a peasant since you moved to Cambridge to open your own restaurant [the recently reopened Fitzbillies, a 90-year-old bakery], so I think you can wear the old-school Marxist tag very comfortably. On one point we agree: Alex James’s Sun piece was both stupid and irresponsible. All that said, I think there are grounds for optimism; that big business really can be shifted by market forces to do good. And curiously, the best example of that really is McDonald’s. Their business was collapsing towards the end of the 90s. They turned it around by committing to only using British and Irish beef, making all their milk organic and swapping their entire egg supply to free range. Their turnover improved. We may both have grave concerns about the proliferation of their offerings and the way they make chips that taste of cardboard despite using potato. But it is proof that it’s worth engaging with the industrial food process and encouraging the big players to do better. Just don’t go expecting the former bassist from Blur to be the man to make it happen. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds