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This from the Observer - apologies if you have it already. Good effort from Robin Maynard, I thought.

Force feeding The food industry spends billions hard selling junk to children. It's time the government stepped in, says Robin Maynard of campaign group FARM.

Sunday January 25, 2004

The Observer

I went to the Observer debate on obesity and children organised with every intention of staying silent. I work for FARM, a farming organisation, and so am involved in food issues (which may surprise those who think farmers just grow subsidy cheques). Childhood obesity, its causes, and solutions is not our immediate concern. I turned up to listen and learn.

Much useful information was provided by some of the panel of experts. Snippets of facts and figures gleaned from media articles and from skimming the websites of food campaigning organisations, were given greater coherence by nutritionalist, Susan Jebb and the specialist working directly in Nottingham with obese children, Dr Ian Campbell.

What forced me to my feet, to interject on a subject outside my normal arena, was the lack of any passion or clarity of action coming from not just one, but the two government ministers present, Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson and Sports Minister Richard Caborn. The blame-shifting opener from Professor Ken Fox, an exercise professor from Bristol University, didn't particularly rile me: 'It's not us, guv. It's down to inactivity; the motor car, feckless parents etc.'.

It was the ministers' apparent complicity and reluctance to upset their industry chums which got my goat. As our democratically elected representatives, with salaries paid by the taxpayer, they should surely be free to speak their minds, to stand up for the academics and coal-face professional medics who have provided them with enough evidence on which to act?

Worse than the usual self-justifying cant about 'why they're jolly good ministers' and 'government doing everything it can,' was the apparent craven supplication to the very people predominantly behind the problem. I'm sure I heard Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson, say the industry deserved praise for having agreed to no longer advertise to pre-primary age children. Praise? They should never have been pushing their sugar and salt-laden, fatty snacks to infants in the first place!

Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, is the very same who was 'delighted' that Cadburys, 'in partnership' with government, was helping raise funds for sports equipment in schools. How? By persuading children to eat mountains of chocolate! Campaign group, Sustain, calculated that to receive a set of volley ball net posts, school kids would need to stuff down 1.25 million chocolately calories at a cost of 2,000.

Rather than pussy-footing around those who have shamelessly pushed unhealthy pap to children, the ministers should step up to the mark and give them a few short, sharp jabs. Even those usually inclined to put private profit before public interest expect them to do so. City investment banks, UBS Warburgs and J P Morgan, have warned the top spending food advertisers (including McDonalds, Cadburys, Coca-Cola, Heinz and Nestle) that, since there is sufficient evidence that they are contributing to an 'obesity promoting environment', their share-price is at risk from possible government regulation and private legal actions. It will further erode public confidence in politicians if class actions by people suffering health problems linked to the diet pushed by the food industry precede government regulation.

To put some spring into the ministers' footwork as they step into the ring, here's a reminder of some of the evidence that persuaded the bankers:

Research published in September 2003 by the government's own Food Standards Agency found that advertising 'influences children's food preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption'.

The Chief Medical Officer, referring to obesity as a "health time bomb", recommended in his 2002 Annual Report that there is a case to adopt the precautionary principle for the marketing of foods to children.

The response from the food and advertising industries has been that advertising doesn't persuade anyone to buy anything. Presumably it's such ineffectiveness that leads the food industry to spend $50bn globally? A waste of money greater than the gross domestic product of 70% all the world's countries. McDonalds alone spends $2bn annually - money it presumably thinks is well-spent, given that whilst half of 4-year-olds in the UK don't know their own name, 69% of them recognise the golden arches of McDonald's.

Such research findings should give our politicians the confidence to act. For starters, why not ban advertising of all unhealthy foods to children under the age of 12? The Swedes and Norwegians have already done so. Don't worry, ministers, your own experts and agencies can readily tell you what's unhealthy. It's the 75% of foodstuffs high in salt, sugar and fats currently dominating children's TV advertising.

Similar government procrastination and industry shenanigans are depressingly familiar from my day-job. Official statistics show our farming sector is in terminal decline - with tens of thousands of farmers and farm-workers leaving the land over the last year. Average farm incomes stand at around 12,000, slightly up on last year's 10,000; many are much less. As the small and family farms, that the public says it wants to see in the countryside, go under, they are replaced by much bigger, more intensive agribusinesses. What's driving this exodus? The same forces that peddle unhealthy food to our children: Vast multinational food traders, processors and retailers which scour the globe to obtain the cheapest raw ingredients to turn into high-value added, long-shelf life processed foods that dominate supermarket shelf-space. And which, promoted by that billion dollar marketing spend, is foisted on the consumer.

As Tesco, Asda-Walmart and Sainsbury fight for market supremacy, the diversity of choice and competition on our High Streets diminishes. Downward pressure on farm-gate prices forces a similar homogeneity and narrowing of our food producing sector.

We await an announcement from Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt as to whether she will introduce a binding Code of Practice to regulate against what the Competition Commission has reluctantly acknowledged to be operations against public interest by major retailers. But with Government cowering in the shadow of 'Tesco-saurus', a Code of Procrastination seems more likely.


Goes quite well with an article in the New Statesman this week by Richard Reeves:

"McDonald is lauded for its community relations and employment policies. But asked recently about the obesity crisis in the US, the chief executives reply was:"Not our problem".....A firm that denies even a scintilla of responsibility for the impact of its products - hamburgers, violent video games or pornography - has no claim on any kind of responsibility at all".