“Let Them Eat Cake:” European Austerity, Food Insecurity, and Food Fraud

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (let them eat cake) is the reported response by Queen Marie-Antoinette upon hearing during the famine of 1789 that French peasants did not have any bread to eat. Neumann (1977) critiqued the circumstances that led to this particular bread famine in France. Firstly, there was a spring drought and hailstorms in July in 1788 that led to a poor harvest in a country where 90 percent of the population lived on a diet of cereals in the form of bread, gruel, or liquid broth. A decade of economic depression, unemployment, and low wages before the price spike meant that the poor spent 55 percent of their income on bread and this rose to 88 percent during the food shortage. The associated violence became widespread in July 1789, leading to the French Revolution and the overthrow of the status quo in a sea of bloodshed.

There were similar upward food price spikes in 2008 and 2010. These were caused by climate factors such as drought in Russia, the Ukraine, and Argentina, as well as harvest failure in Australia, and floods and typhoons and a poor canola harvest in Canada (Piesse and Thirtle, 2009; Wood et al. 2012). Other factors also had an impact. These included policy initiatives in the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) to promote biofuels and decouple agricultural subsidies, together with a decline in the value of the US dollar; export bans and national food security policies being adopted to safeguard national food supply. A lack of investment in agricultural research and development, and the influence of oil price on artificial nitrogen fertilizer (quadrupled since 2000), fuel and energy prices (Piesse and Thirtle, 2009) led to a reduction in traded exports of wheat (Sternberg, 2012). These factors coming together as a kind of “perfect storm”, ultimately caused widespread global household food insecurity.

This article focuses on Europe and the interaction between food price spikes, economic downturn and political austerity, and the risk of reported food fraud. It is important to firstly consider the impact of the 2007-2008 financial crash on household food security and the role of food insecurity as a driver towards political instability. Household food security refers to the ability to access food calories, and when this aim is achieved, with a secondary concern then for the balance of nutrients for a healthful diet. The global food price crisis that began in 2007 posed major challenges to policy makers in developed and developing countries alike, affecting the affordability of food, especially in the lowest income quintile of the population (FAO, 2014; Manning, 2016). When food prices rose in real terms in 2007 and 2008, low income households in the UK were affected disproportionately with a rise of 1.6 percent to 16.8 percent of all household spend, compared to 10.8 percent of household spend for all households (FSP, 2011). In 2011, concern over the potential loss of yield due to winter drought led to China buying wheat on international markets. This caused a price spike for the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt, where retail bread prices tripled (Sternberg, 2012). As in the example of the French Revolution, a sudden rise in the price of bread, the staple food for the population, was one of a number of politico-social and economic factors that exacerbated civil unrest in 2008. There were multiple countries affected across the world by food and oil prices rise, an estimated seventy-four low income and seventy-one middle income countries (Berazneva and Lee, 2013), leading, for example, to “Tortilla Riots” in Mexico in 2007 (Wood et al. 2012; Banerjee and Hysjulien, 2018) and riots in Egypt again in 2011 (Sternberg, 2012). Indeed, Berazneva and Lee (2013) highlight that there were food riots in fourteen out of fifty-three African countries in 2007 and 2008.

Food prices, austerity, and food insecurity

The urban poor are especially vulnerable to price spikes because they have inadequate household income and limited choices as to where to source food, in part, as a result of food retail consolidation (Rodriguez-Takeuchi and Imai, 2013; Skordili, 2013). Retail consolidation describes the rise in mega-retail businesses that have the purchasing leverage to out-compete smaller local stores, which disappear overtime or stay in business through raising their prices. Food retail businesses continue to buy each other, enter agreements or merge, as seen in the UK in recent months with the proposed “Sainsburys-Asda merger.” The reported strategic alliance between Tesco (UK) and Carrefour (France), who together have 19,000 retail stores with a combined buying power of £80 billion, will lead to further purchasing consolidation (The Guardian, 2018). However, food insecurity is as much about reduced purchasing power of consumers as it is about choice and availability in a changing retail environment in which to purchase such food.

Household food insecurity in Europe increased markedly after 2009. Between 2005 and 2009, household food insecurity fell from 12 percent to 8.7 percent of the EU population to rise to 10.9 percent in 2012 with differentiated impact across the EU. Food insecurity was greatest in communities with rising unemployment and falling wages where there was no, or reducing, social protection support (Loopstra et al. 2016). Wood et al. (2012) differentiate between types of household spending at the first stage of the budgeting level in terms of food, education, health, housing, other, personal and transport i.e. at a household level it is not a simple decision whether to purchase food or not. Decisions are framed by all the competing demands on household income, which are situational, cultural, and influenced by social norms. Reducing household income requires households to make a trade-off between food, utilities (heating and water), housing, local government taxes, and other household items (Loopstra et al. 2016). These trade-offs were further exacerbated by austerity measures in Europe.

Austerity is quite simply a situation in which people’s living conditions are reduced by economic difficulties such as at times of conflict or war (Collinsdictionary.com). The term “austerity measures” refer to the official actions taken by the government, or political union, to reduce its budget deficit during a period of adverse economic conditions, using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises. Austerity measures were implemented in the EU following the global recession in 2008 and the Eurozone crisis in 2009 (ft.com/lexicon). The economic downturn and sovereign debt crisis caused unemployment, reduced wages for those in employment, and reduced gross domestic product (GDP) across Europe, leading to the implementation of austerity policies and a reduction in public expenditure (Quaglio et al. 2013). Austerity measures in a developed previously stable economy are different in terms of their impact compared to such measures being implemented in societies that are inured to poverty and a lack of development (Knight and Stewart, 2016:). Knight and Stewart (2016:2) argue that individuals and households who previously had a higher standard of living have an instant reversal of fortunes and are “plunged” into a situation where they have to “make do with less” and in some cases, considerably less. “Austerity throws the issue of human dignity into high relief as people set about deciding on the new minimum requirements for an acceptable life.” Food price spikes can have direct and indirect social effects with greatest impact on middle-income countries with diverse diets, such as Mexico where the middle earners have to recalibrate their diets whilst the poor substitute foods for cheaper alternatives (Wood et al. 2012). Considering the financial crisis and political austerity, Skordili (2013:130) states: “thousands of lower and middle-income households [had] to substitute nutritious food for fewer and cheaper products, living on diets of inadequate nutritional value and quality.” Dowler and Lambie Mumford (2014:17) concur, stating that “rising costs of living, …… static or falling incomes from wages and/or social security … [means that for] more and more households stark food insecurity is becoming the norm, however skilfully people budget, shop and prepare food.” Food insecurity is about calorie counting. Does an individual have enough calories to sustain life? The UK Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra, 2006) defined food security as including three elements: access (an individual’s or household’s ability to obtain that food), availability (the supply of food in a given location), and affordability of food. The World Food Programme (2006) states that while access and availability is important, the third factor is utilization (a person’s ability to select, take in and absorb nutrients in the food), and vulnerability (the physical, environmental, economic, social, and health risks that may affect availability, access, and use). It includes nutritional and wider risk criteria that are not currently addressed in the Defra definition. Thus, the relationship between food security and nutrition security is influenced by multiple factors and malnutrition outcomes in food insecure populations are increasingly evidenced in obesity, which results from the consumption of cheaper, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods leading to a situation of nutrition insecurity in the midst of calorie abundance (Hwalla et al. 2016).

In the context of austerity, alternative food networks (AFNs) developed as a means to address calorie insecurity specifically. AFNs are alternative ways of supplying food to consumers compared to what is standard in terms of retail channels and/or accepted practice (Maye & Kirwan, 2010).  In the context of food insecurity, AFNs are defined by their socio-spatial proximity, with the business models employed often having non-profit making characteristics. Therefore, donation-based AFNs are structures that reconfigure, respatialize and resocialize the systems of production, distribution and consumption of food (Jarosz, 2008; Paül & McKenzie, 2013). AFNs implemented to tackle the impact of household food insecurity caused by austerity include food banks, social supermarkets, and more politicized anti-capitalist food movements such as freeganism and solidarity food distribution networks (Calvário et al. 2017). Freegans sustain themselves entirely through the consumption of disposed goods. They eat waste food, wear second-hand clothing, and use materials and utensils that have been used before (Nguyen et al. 2014). Most high streets in the UK have charity shops supporting “second-hand” lifestyles as a means to derive much needed cash benefit for the charities themselves (private hospices, animal rescue centers, etc.) and an opportunity for others to purchase clothing, household goods and reduced prices. The extension of this construct towards food consumption seems simple. For some, the provision of food to those in need by charity is ethically non-contentious. Nguyen et al. (2014:1878) consider the freegan lifestyle and the ideological inversion associated with reverse stigma stating: “people construct separate value systems and impose the stigma [they feel from eating the waste from other people’s profligate lifestyle] onto the dominant order to assert moral superiority.” Whilst freeganism per se is not the subject of this article the need to reframe the discourse of material consumption is of interest here. Reframing the discourse can be extended to addressing food waste from farming, processing, retail, and manufacturing, engendered by profligate processes and systems which drive waste such as 24/7 retail and food service availability of food for consumers so they have constant and wide ranging “choice.” The language of dispossession and reclamation (Nguyen et al. 2014), and food rescue (Warshawsky, 2015) sits alongside stigmatized descriptions of the deserving, undeserving or unworthy poor who are “given” food (Garthwaite et al. 2015). Culpability implies poor choices being freely made by individuals, but often those self-same individuals act not from autonomy but from a psychological predisposition that frames their behavior (Manning, 2016). Indeed, stigma and discrimination are pervasive and pose numerous consequences for the psychological and physical health of those individuals to whom they are directed (Puhl and Heuer, 2010). Garthwaite et al. (2015) go on to argue: “food choice is a concept no longer relevant to foodbank users. Necessity, not choice, means that people are forced to eat food that is cheap, readily available, filling and will not result in any wastage.” The same is true of community groups who, because of low incomes, resort to eating “cheap energy-dense food.”


Cheap food and the risk of food fraud

Evidence suggests that since the recession of 2007-8 there has been an increase in food crime (McElwee et al. 2017). The demand for “cheap food” was heightened by the 2008-2011 economic recession and associated austerity measures. This economic driver was at odds with commodity prices rising for animal feed, increased fuel prices and consequently logistics and chill-chain distribution costs increasing especially, in the product example here for beef products (Czinkota et al. 2014). Food supply organizations in the beef supply chain especially those providing “cheap” burgers and “cheap” ready meals, and “buy one get one free” (BOGOF) offers faced both a strategic and moral dilemma. Put simply, this dilemma was between seeking new ways of reducing costs in order to remain competitive while meeting, if not exceeding, legislative and regulatory requirements over food safety and labelling (Manning, 2016). This ethical dilemma encouraged both isolated and systematic “food crime,” including food fraud and food substitution (with inferior ingredients) i.e. “cheap capitalism” characterized by low price, poor quality products, and degraded business morality. (Cheng, 2012).

Following an EU Food and Veterinary Office inspection mission to the UK in March 2012, the European Commission demanded that from April 28, 2012 the production of desinewed meat (DSM) could no longer contribute towards the meat content of a food product (e.g. beef burgers) and ready meals and would have to be labeled as mechanically separated meat (Parliament, 2012). This required a reformulation of these foods at short notice. Where the alternative legitimate meat source was more expensive, it was an opportunity, motivation, and rationalization for food fraud. Manufacturers of low-cost burgers and meals were forced to reconsider the use of low-cost beef proteins in a fiercely competitive market with supply chain pressure to reduce food prices within the context of political austerity. History tells us the “horsemeat scandal” of 2013 followed.

In January 2013, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found DNA from an equine source in a number of burger products (O’Mahoney, 2013). In the months that followed, the list of products linked to the presence of horse DNA, where the presence was not identified on the label, grew. In April 2013, the European Commission reported that 4.7 percent of the products tested for the presence of horse DNA (total samples n = 4144) had positive traces and 0.51 percent of the products tested for the drug phenylbutazone (total samples n = 3115) showed positive traces. With additional tests performed by food business operators (n = 7951) for the presence of horse DNA, 1.38 percent had positive results (EC, 2013, Manning and Soon, 2014). It transpired that the chain of actors involved in the fraudulent activity included a food processor in France, its subsidiary in Luxembourg, a subcontractor in Cyprus, a meat trader in the Netherlands, abattoirs in Romania, and a number of food businesses in the UK, Ireland and across Europe selling the end products  (NAO, 2013; Manning et al. 2016).

The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS, 2014) in its briefing document “Fighting Fraud” highlighted the reasons leading to the 2013 horsemeat incident. These included: the financial crisis, rising food prices and the demand for cheap food, complex food supply chains and pressure on control services, low levels of governance and lack of a strong deterrent (penalties). The European Parliament Draft Report (EP, 2013: 6) concluded that the: “retail sector has a special responsibility to guarantee the integrity of food products and to demand from its suppliers a safe and secure supply chain; [and the European Parliament] deplores the pressure on primary producers from retail and other food business operators to produce ever more cheaply.”

In the wake of regulatory governance changes and economic austerity, this incident poses the question as to whether we need a new reconfiguring of food sovereignty, especially for low-income households (Calvário et al. 2017) who are vulnerable to fraud and misrepresentation in the supply chain. Urbanization leads to a reliance on “anonymous” supply chains where the producer does not know the consumer, so there is less moral imperative to be honest (Trench et al. 2011). Indeed, urbanization and large scale food production creates an emotional detachment and socio-spatial distance between food producers and consumers. Producers become more likely to prepare or sell food of a poorer standard, even substituting ingredients, which can cause personal detriment (Manning, 2016). Czinkota et al. (2014:99) conclude: “Despite the existence of an abundant body of laws and principles governing it, the increasing scale and the intricacies of the food supply chain resulted in a variety of dysfunctions.” The “horsemeat scandal” evidenced a context of cheap food and the risk of food fraud. It also demonstrated a widespread contempt for consumers and a disregard for consumers’ ability to make informed choices with regard to the species of animal they consumed (Manning et al. 2016:44).  This practice of substitution and wider misrepresentation is age-old. In the eighteenth century, sawdust and Plaster of Paris were often used to adulterate and cheapen low quality bread (Shears, 2008). “Let them eat cake” may seem to be a quote lost in the midst of time but we see examples of the same disregard and contempt in our food supply chains today. The victims of food crime seem remote for some perpetrators, but those on low incomes or reliant on food donations have particular vulnerability.


Louise Manning is Reader in Food Policy and Management at Harper Adams University, UK. She undertakes research in the integrity in food supply chains, publishes extensively in academic journals, writes for books and also regularly chairs and speaks at international food and business conferences. She tweets on current food policy issues as @foodsafetyljm. Her latest publication is Kowalska, A., Soon, J.M., and Manning, L. (2018), “A study on adulteration in cereals and bakery products from Poland including a review of definitions,” Food Control (92): 348-356.

Photo: Marie-Antoinette, by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1783, French painting, oil on canvas | Shutterstock



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Published on September 5, 2018.


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