Informed debate or TV hysterics?

Date Published: 07/10/2010

Emotions seem to be mixed among viewers we’ve talked to of the current Channel 4 programme Food: What Goes in Your Basket?, presented by food critic, Jay Rayner.

Some think it’s good to be educating shoppers on food and farming. Others think this kind of (sometimes shock/horror) overview approach is just about making TV that gets good ratings.

There was certainly a good result in last night’s programme when they did a taste test on scotch eggs made with organic versus ordinary free-range eggs and 73 per cent of those in the studio preferred the organic version! Though this still doesn’t really lessen our scepticism over taste tests…

In many ways the programme is opening people’s eyes to the way food is produced. When fresh produce leaves the farm it can go through many processes to end up as a finished item. And once that process is complete, it generally goes into the hands of the marketing people, which is often where things get sticky as they try to ‘position’ products for certain audiences, or create brand images that sell certain feelings and concepts to the consumer. Maybe that’s where the most, shall we say, breakdowns in communication happen…

But just like many things, you can present these facts of life in different ways. Depending on how you tell the story, the way products are marketed could be seen as dishonest or misleading in some cases. Alternatively, you could take the view that people’s surprise to learn how things are done is down to the fact that they’ve never before considered the realities of food production. And some of these realities are harsh if you’re not familiar with them.

When you’re making TV for a prime-time audience you have to keep things simple – not because of an assumption that your audience is simple, but because if you don’t you’re probably making really boring telly!

This can sometimes result in fairly broad statements that don’t really get to the heart of an issue. When they looked at yogurt last night, there was an implication that most people think of yogurt as healthy (if not a diet food) and don’t expect the amount of sugar found in many yogurts. There was plenty of faux shock when sugar levels of some products were revealed. That shouldn’t be a surprise when at least one of the yogurts was flavoured with chunks of chocolate!

The problem here is not sugar in food – it’s people’s lack of understanding that if they want nice, sweet treat foods, they will have sugar in. You can buy a low-fat, low-sugar yogurt. Surely that doesn’t mean they all have to be that way? It’s about choice, the point being that such choices should be informed.

It’s good to educate people to look more closely at their food, where it comes from and how it’s presented (although eyebrows were raised when Mr Rayner suggest super dairies might be the way forward…).

We’ve been liaising with the producers of Food: What Goes in Your Basket? as they’ve come looking for facts about organic. We are never, ever shy of sharing those facts because, while the organic system is not perfect (is anything?) it’s working really hard to respect farmers, their animals, their land and, ultimately, their customers.

Now we wait to see next week’s programme, which is looking at chicken, including organic, to see how those facts are treated, in the hope that the benefits of organic food and farming are clearly presented and serve to educate the audience into making their own informed choices. However it comes across, it’s great that people are being made to think.

You can watch last night’s programme via the 4OD on-demand service, or tune into next week’s at 8pm on Wednesday, Channel 4.