All That and a Bag of Chips

Somewhere, Jamie Oliver is crying.

The new conservative government of England (hey, what happened to the balancing forces of a coalition?) has caved in to demands from the junk food industry and has scrapped the Food Standards Agency (the equivalent to the FDA). Which means that junk food companies are now free to self-regulate.

It seems that the junk food industry and its lobbyists weren’t terribly impressed with a motion to put stop-light style labels on the front of food packages indicating healthy and poor choices. The industry won that battle, arguing that consumers could use the existing nutrition labelling to calculate the percentage of each nutrient that the food item provided. This is similar to what we have in Canada and the US and let’s be honest – who sits down and calculates their daily intake of every nutrient?

The industry advocated “guideline daily amounts”, a system that listed percentages of recommended daily allowances included in each serving. The food industry spent an estimated £830m on lobbying to stop the traffic lights scheme, which enjoyed a level of popularity with consumers because it was relatively easy to understand. A spokesman for cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s said: “The FSA has done a very good job in terms of food safety and science but there was a feeling that perhaps its role was becoming far too broad. We welcome the prospect of a more consensual partnership which will have many positive benefits.” [British health secretary] Lansley said on the BBC that he was not in favour of “lecturing, nannying people or constantly legislating or taxing people”. Responding to calls for a crackdown on junk food from Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Lansley said a cross-government cabinet sub-committee was focused on public health.

Critics noted that the end of the FSA was floated days after the health secretary offered a pact with the food industry.

In a deal outlined last week, Lansley publicly asked big business to fund the government’s advertising campaign to persuade people to switch to a healthier lifestyle – and in return it would not face legislation outlawing excessively fatty, sugary and salty food.

Sure… yeah. That’ll work.

British health secretary Andrew Lansley says the regulatory aspects of the FSA will be passed on to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In Canada, this would be the equivalent of handing over the role of Health Canada to the Department of Agriculture – basically giving an already stressed department a double workload, regulating aspects of the industry where there is a great deal of conflict of interest.

Overall, it doesn’t bode at all well for anyone in the UK trying to fight the good fight against junk food, childhood obesity or even just maintaining safety and sanitation regulations within the food industry, such as BSE, the last of which being what the FSA was originally created to oversee.

This isn’t just a bad situation for Brits, either, as industry lobbyists will see this as a reason to put pressure on other countries to follow suit. Food in Britain, and maybe all over the world, just got royally screwed.

More on this topic:

Food Politics by Marion Nestle

The Guardian

Another piece in The Guardian about the reaction from doctors.

The Atlantic