The government’s new call to action on obesity places the food industry as the driver for slimming England’s waistlines. Is that really going to be effective? We need regulatory change, not vague half measures.
The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants the country’s calorie intake to be reduced by five billion calories a day ‘to help close the crucial imbalance between energy in and energy out’ and has decided the best way to do this is leave it to the food industry to reduce calories in their products.
So, let me get this straight – the companies that have the most to gain from us consuming more calories than we need are now the custodians of helping us to eat less?! Members of the House of Lords recently likened this arrangement to ‘letting Dracula advise on blood bank security’ and I’m afraid I have to agree.
Don’t leave it to the food industry
Industry self-regulation has proved to be a successful tactic in achieving change where legislation is an inappropriate solution to the problem. This is the case with some pollution problems where legislation can’t keep up. But you only need to look at the banking industry to see that self-regulation doesn’t always work – in fact it can prove woefully inadequate.
And it’s not that legislation’s always the solution – there are a whole range of government interventions that can be used instead. But wouldn’t a bit of leadership and direction be a good thing?
When it comes to reversing the ‘tide of obesity’, I think letting an industry that has made millions on the back of our increased addiction to high-calorie foods won’t bring about the most effective results. I’m not saying that the industry doesn’t have a role to play, its commitment to the issue is essential. Yet, when there are such obvious regulatory changes that could be made too, I don’t know why the government doesn’t try out a mix of methods.
“Ambitions” are all very well, but unless you provide tangible plans on how you can meet them, they’re just pipe dreams. The Dane’s decision to introduce a tax on foods high in saturated fat caused uproar last week. I’m not saying this is the best way to tackle obesity, but I’m sure if we had to pay more for fatty foods we’d start looking for healthier options. And at least the Danish government is taking real action on the obesity problem.
Our appetite for change
So what are the other ways to get us eating healthily? You may have noticed that calorie labelling has crept onto the menus of some food chains. At last count, 40 food outlets had voluntarily signed up, but that still leaves hundreds of chains without them. Making this compulsory for all chains would be one way the government could help.
The government could also settle the age-old confusion with front-of-pack nutrition labelling. We’ve long called for traffic lights to be used on labels so people can work out what’s in their food, yet we’re still faced with a myriad of different options depending on where you do our weekly shop or which brands you buy.
So Mr Lansley, if you’re serious about curbing the tide of obesity, you need to do more than just let the food giants decide what will work best. There are plenty of options to complement industry’s involvement, so why don’t you give them a chance? After all, isn’t that what being in government is about?