Monday, July 12, 2010

What price food?

If you ask the government and the business-friendly Andrew Lansley, it seems to be just a few quid from the food suppliers and retailers, as he plans to scrap the Food Standards Agency and transfer the hygiene responsibilities across to DEFRA. (

The FSA was created following the execrable performance by an earlier incarnation of DEFRA in failing to get across to farmers and feed suppliers that feeding ground up brains and spinal cords to animals used to grass and hay might have unwanted consequences. It took a commercially and medically devastating outbreak of BSE for someone to work out that this might not be a great leap forward and MAFF did not cover itself in glory - it emerged smeared with other products usually found in farmyards. Handing the hygiene role back to a department charged with supporting agriculture may prove to be a conflict of interest too far - and we really don't want any pictures of senior ministers force-feeding burgers to their children again, thank you. (Incidentally, the effectiveness of DEFRA in supporting farmers is a whole different story)

You will also recall an ingrained Conservative scepticism towards claims of the cost-effectiveness of government advertising, so it seems odd that they consider that a few industry-financed campaigns will adequately discharge the need to provide healthy eating advice. Perhaps they have in mind the campaign by the drinks industry, encouraging us to 'drink responsibly,' which has done so much to guide people away from binge drinking. That is the future of food health campaigning under the new politics of the coalition. And before people start whinging about the nanny state, remember that we all pay the price in tax for the health outcomes of poor diets. Investing in education and possibly even in legislation now will prove far more cost-effective than waiting to treat people as they get older and sicker. It is also progressive, as we know that the poorest in society are also those most reliant on the unhealthiest of foods and have difficulty accessing quality, affordable food. Asking suppliers to support a campaign that will affect their bottom line will ensure that the message is appropriately lukewarm and ineffectively banal. Impartiality is an important attribute for government advice and if it is beholden to the suppliers, it is instantly compromised.

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