Bashing Small Shops

A proposed new tax will make life even harder for the independent foodstore

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 28th January 1999.

It takes the bakery at the end of my street a week to make £90 in profits. It takes the out-of-town Tesco two miles away a matter of minutes. Yet both will contribute £90 to the Food Standards Agency every year. Welcome and necessary as the FSA is, this till tax is as unfair and divisive as the poll tax.

My local bakery will be paying as much as the Tesco gigastore because the big business lobby is more effective in Britain than the small business lobby. Big business has been sniping at the Food Standards Agency proposals since they were launched in 1997, seeking both to reduce the amount it would have to pay and to reduce the agency’s scope and effectiveness. Its success with the first task bodes well for the second. Having so smoothly shifted the burden of payment onto the small retailer, we can expect it to dispose of any unwelcome regulations the FSA might promote just as expeditiously.

There are some regulations big business hates, and some that it loves. It hates regulations which force it to comply with local peculiarities. It loves regulations which conform to a single regional or global standard. These allow it to sell a uniform product across a harmonised market, thus reaping economies of scale which enable it to undercut and destroy small and medium-sized firms. This is what the attempted Multilateral Agreement on Investment was all about. This is why the European Round Table of Industrialists proposed and drafted the Single European Act.

In 1997, when the FSA was first proposed, big business fought long and hard to confine its remit to “microbiological issues”: namely the contamination of food by bacteria or fungus. This is a problem which can best be tackled by standardisation: identical means of processing, storing and displaying food. What big business did not want was a standards agency which dealt with “chemical” matters, such as pesticide residues and nutritional content. An FSA overseeing chemical matters would demand that different foodstuffs are handled differently and – because it would quickly conclude that only organic food could reasonably be labelled “safe” and “nutritious” – that food is produced in ways which respect and respond to local conditions. Such regulations would favour small business rather than big business: the major manufacturers and superstores to whom this government listens would find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Yesterday’s draft bill suggests, at first sight, that big business has lost this battle: the agency will consider food standards and nutrition as well as food safety. But, as previous food scandals demonstrate all too clearly, the proof of the regulatory pudding is in the eating: the bill’s proposals will be useless if big business is able to influence their interpretation and implementation.

The collusion between government and food adulterators has lasted for over 150 years, and shows no sign of remission. The 1990 Food Safety Act was nobbled, to allow manufacturers to confuse consumers with unintelligible lists of ingredients. So was the Committeee on Medical Aspects of Food, which, after lobbying by major meat producers last year, raised its recommended safe daily meat intake from 90 to 140 grams. Now the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, is considering launching a government scheme to convince shoppers that genetically engineered foods will do them no harm, with reassuring videos to be shown at supermarket checkouts. At the same time, the government has been secretly negotiating with the superstores to use their databases of loyalty card holders to discover whether the consumption of engineered food causes allergies, cancer and birth defects.

When the geneticist Dr Arpad Pusztai claimed that some manipulated foods might indeed be dangerous to consumers, he was dismissed from the government-funded institute for which he worked, gagged and savaged by an audit report whose statistical methods are now beginning to look questionable. The man who sacked him is Professor Philip James, the author of the admirable paper which launched the government’s Food Standards Agency proposals.

Altogether, it is not, perhaps, surprising that the government’s Invest in Britain Bureau boasts to foreign companies that Britain “leads the way in Europe in ensuring that regulations and other measures affecting the development of biotechnology take full account of the concerns of business. This has created a sympathetic regulatory climate for biotechnology.”

While big business basks in this climate, small business shrivels. Much as I would love freely to celebrate the government’s draft bill, it’s hard, right now, to believe that it will change that fundamental climatic equation.