Ryeview – April 2007

Stand up to the food giants and tax junk food

John Clark writes…

First published: April 2007

Food is the fuel of life. Despite this immense importance, our food is abused. Preservatives, E numbers, salt, fat and many unknowns are all added to processed food resulting in much of it becoming harmful. Research in the 1930s (McCarrison) showed that those people eating healthy simple food were in fact healthy themselves. The groups he observed ranged from isolated villages in Northern India to South Sea Islanders and Eskimos (Inuits). A wide range of diets from lacto-vegetarians through to almost carnivorous. The food was unprocessed and the people were healthy.

There is a glimmer of hope that, by the 2030’s, we may take notice. Last week the government introduced a ban on the advertising of junk food in children’s television programmes. At long last the government is admitting that ‘junk food’ is bad for children. Children are not allowed to smoke in schools. Cigarettes are not sold to children under 16, certainly not in schools. Cigarettes are not advertised on television to anyone, not just children.

Junk food does not follow this logic. There is junk food in some school dinners and it can still be bought freely. As it is clearly bad for health, the ideal would be for it not to be produced. If this is a step too far then why is it not taxed? Consumption of cigarettes, petrol and alcohol all need to be reduced. They are all taxed. The logic is for junk food to be taxed. The extra revenue could be used for the NHS, schools, day care etc. All the areas that benefit children. Alongside this gain would be the further benefit that good food would become relatively ‘cheaper’ compared with the processed variety.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is the body responsible for food. I have always been in favour of having a food regulatory body. The problem is the FSA concentrates on consumer surveys and the importance of price. What it should control is what its name implies – the standard of food.

The FSA recently set up a ‘high powered nutrition strategy group to drive forward healthier eating’. This was launched, and is to be chaired by the Public Health Minister Caroline Flint. At last we were going to view food from its impact on health. To my horror, the membership of this group includes very senior people from Pepsi, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Unilever and Tesco. Not only do they have virtually total control of the food markets but they have a majority on the group ‘driving forward healthier eating’. Putting a group of foxes in control of the hen hut fastening committee is beyond belief. The lack of importance is shown by the frequency of meetings – twice a year.

Unless something is done about cheap junk food (taxation, banning etc) then we will pay clearly through diabetes, obesity, heart disease etc. We grow good food in the UK. Why are we allowing this abuse between the farmgate and the plate? Why are we allowing the corporate giants to profit at the expense of the nation’s health? If the FSA won’t stand up to these corporate bullies then someone else will have to.

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