Six principles to reshape food supply chains: Professor Elliott

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

The UK food supply chain should be reshaped on the basis of six principles, says professor Elliott
The UK food supply chain should be reshaped on the basis of six principles, says professor Elliott

Related tags: Food, Agriculture

Six principles of food integrity – “akin to a new industrial revolution” – should be used to reshape the British food supply system in the run up to Brexit and beyond, according to Professor Chris Elliott’s keynote address at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month.

The six principles were: The food we produce is safe; The food we produce is authentic; The food we produce is nutritious; The systems we use to produce our food are sustainable; Our food is produced to the highest ethical standards; and We respect the environment and those who work in our food industry.

The principles were “an attempt to think about what good could look like in the future in terms of our national food supply system”.

While a myriad of challenges lie ahead, the prize was something worth working towards, said the author of two influential reports commissioned by the government to study the horsemeat crisis of 2013.

“The burning question is whether there is both a political and industry will to think about having a food supply system based on the principles of integrity," ​said Elliott. "The level of changes needed are substantial, the level of investment will be significant but the potential to have an entire population eating food that fulfils all six principles would undoubtedly be akin to a new industrial revolution.”

While the first two industrial revolutions drove people away from the land, the new one would bring them back again, he added.

His first principle, The food we produce is safe​, sought to highlight the 1M cases of foodborne illness experienced in the UK each year. While that rate was significantly lower than in the US, the social and economic consequences of 1M each demanded attention.

“My great concern is that in this sector the levels of inspections are reducing due to budget cuts in public services and instead of reducing cases of food illness we may actually see a rise,”​ he said.

An improved education system and innovative food packaging could both play important roles in cutting the main cause of UK food illness, campylobacter, particularly from poultry produce.

The second principle, The food we produce is authentic, ​highlighted the extent to which the complexity of the global food supply system was fuelling opportunities for food and drink fraud and the involvement of organised crime was increasing.

While the horsemeat crisis shocked the nation, there were numerous other incidents of equal or much worse proportion happening on a regular basis in many parts of the world, he reported.

“No animal feed, food commodity or ingredients are exempt from fraud and any weaknesses in quality control, inspections and traceability will be exploited to the maximum,”​ said Elliott. “Food fraud also cuts across virtually all other principles of food integrity and thus if this is not tackled at a national level then integrity of the food we eat will always be compromised.” 

Elliott feared the UK might be exposed to greater fraud threats, which would result the public losing  “further trust in our national food supply system”.

The third principle – The food we produce is nutritious​ – was based on the facts that of the global population of about 7.5bn, nearly 1bn suffer from lack of calories and were in a state of hunger, while a further 2bn suffered from consuming too many calories, resulting in obesity and associated diseases.

Elliott highlighted the problem of ‘missing’ ingredients, such as vitamins, particularly the fat soluble variety, essential elements such as selenium, magnesium, zinc and iodine and free fatty acids such as omega-3. “Thus how can we have a food system based on integrity when two thirds of the world’s population are not receiving the correct level of micronutrition,”​ he asked?

The role for science was clear: how to drive the micronutritional content of food in a way that is natural and does not impact on any of the other five principles.

The fourth principle, The systems we use to produce our food are sustainable​, underlined the key role UK science could play in helping deliver sustainable agriculture and food production systems, both at home and abroad. Increasing crop yields without impacting on the nutritional content of foods, reducing food waste through better ways to store food were two examples.

The fifth principle, Our food is produced to the highest ethical standard​, was another complex area that cuts across other principles such as sustainability and the welfare of those who produce food.

Should the UK continue to drive up standards “knowing that it may bring about an increase in the price of food and perhaps drive cheaper imports which are produced to lower ethical standards?”

Thinking about the right thing to do was not always easy, he admitted. But science could have a positive impact on the ethical production of food. He cited techniques to measure animal welfare status such as early disease diagnostics and robust traceability systems.

Elliott’s final principle, We respect the environment and those who work in our food industry​, sought to recognised that a food system based on integrity must acknowledge that farmers were also the custodians of the environment and that many decisions had to be taken to ensure this was protected.

It was key that farmers and their families could make a decent living from their profession. But downward supply chain pressures, often emanating from the ultra-competitive marketplace, was forcing down farm incomes in real terms, driving the young to seek alternative careers.

“We cannot have a food system based on integrity when those in primary agriculture cannot make a living wage.”

As regards imported food, two questions must be answered, he added: Do food systems exploit citizens by using modern day slavery and/or child labour? “Clearly any food system underpinned by such brutal practices cannot be considered as based on integrity.”

Elliott was speaking on Thursday January 4 at the Oxford Farming Conference​ in Oxford.

Professor Elliott’s six principles of food integrity

  1. The food we produce is safe
  2. The food we produce is authentic
  3. The food we produce is nutritious
  4. The systems we use to produce our food are sustainable
  5. Our food is produced to the highest ethical standards
  6. We respect the environment and those who work in our food industry

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