Weetabix to China? We must be in decline… | Hephzibah Anderson

It is our very own breakfast icon. Or rather, it was until the Chinese gobbled it up

You needn’t hike to Woo-woo land and start buying into auras and chakras to concede that there are such things as bright foods. I’m thinking foods with nutritional zing or visual zip – acai berries, iced buns, or maybe just those MSG-laden leftovers from last night’s takeaway. What I’m not thinking is Weetabix. And yet, thanks to a deal worth £1.2bn, that quintessentially British breakfast cereal, so evocative of murky, drizzle-drenched mornings, is now owned largely by China’s Bright Food Group Co.

As Dr John Harvey Kellogg well knew, breakfast is never just breakfast. Those golden flakes that tumble from the box with such crisp promise only to wilt in the milk were part of the Seventh-day Adventist’s lust-reducing plan, a plan that entailed not only eliminating booze and caffeine, cigarettes and waltzing, but stripping his diet of all things sweet and spicy, too. (Good job he’s not around to sample the queasy delights of wasabi chocolate.)

Likewise, Weetabix stands for much more than the cereal that’s always to be found lurking at the back of an otherwise bare cupboard. It is the ultimate comfort food, its texture – its very taste – recalling nothing so strongly as baby food. In fact, many of us were weaned on the stuff. Moreover, it seems to hark back to a chapter in British culinary history that we’re far enough removed from to feel nostalgic for, a time when it was always Spam sandwiches for tea. We Brits love an underdog, and as a Savoy chef once pointed out, Weetabix even looks a little like dog biscuits. There’s also this: while being relatively low in sugar, salt and fat, it tastes pretty good. No wonder Nigella chucked it in a recipe for brownies.

In short, it is our very own breakfast icon. Or rather, it was until the Chinese gobbled it up. But the reality of these stories is always more complicated than their narrative allows. Weetabix was actually invented in Australia in the 1920s and until the 1970s was made from imported wheat. Its sell-off really began in 2004, when the secretive family firm who then still owned it flogged a controlling stake to a Texan private equity firm.

It made for a faintly amusing news item. Selling to China in 2012 is another matter altogether, tapping into a profound anxiety that the west might be tilting towards irreversible decline.

Tellingly, Weetabix hasn’t received the attention that Cadbury sale to Kraft drew in 2010. Feared job losses, the inherent drama of hostile takeover bids, chocolate – those ingredients all made for a much bigger story, but a certain pessimism seems to have set in since then, too. It’s somehow not in the least bit surprising that China has bought one of our best-loved national brands. And indeed, news of the sale came on the same day that the respected National Institute of Economic and Social Research forecast stagnation for the UK’s economy this year.

Maybe this very British breakfast cereal contains some philosophical value in addition to its iron and B-vitamins. After all, its defining characteristic is an ability to absorb magical quantities of liquid, be it full-fat or soy milk. Now is the time to suck up our chagrin and start building the next national brand, even if we have to go to Australia for it.

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