The kids are not alright
Commercial pressures on families to consume and behave in ways that make parents and children fat, are intolerable. Now there are new moves to resist
Our news team reports. All over the world children are becoming fat and even obese, and thus vulnerable to diabetes. The World Nutrition editorial this month wonders why response to this appalling crisis has generally been so polite. It is, after all, generally agreed to be largely caused by ruthless advertising and marketing of ultra-processed products to children on television and now on the internet, social media and cell phones. This is an outrage.
Is the UK government or industry tide turning towards real protection of children? Not likely. Speaking at the trade body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) on 22 January, public health minister Anna Soubry warned manufacturers that unless they get serious about reducing fat, sugar and salt in their products, they face legislation. However, she said that her 'instinct is not to regulate' and that calls for legal limits on salt, sugar and fat in foods marketed to children are 'bonkers'. Parents are responsible for seeing that their children eat healthy food, she said.
Even so, she said: 'The Prime Minister will be wanting to know whether we are delivering' on the industry's voluntary 'Responsibility Deal'. 'I don't want to be in a position where the prime minister and health secretary are saying to me: "Anna the Responsibility Deal is not delivering in the way that it must for the sake of the nation, so we are going to have to look at legislation".' This did not sound very threatening. In response, UK PepsiCo president Richard Evans, chair of the FDF health and well-being steering group, reckoned that industry was already doing a pretty good job in its partnership with government to reduce obesity, but that some smaller companies could do better.
This followed soon after publication of A Taste for Change, a critical report by the UK's leading consumer organisation Which? (2), which makes clear that the Responsibility Deal is not working. As one example, manufacturers have made no commitments on gthe marketing of their products to children. In an open letter to Anna Soubry, Which? Director Richard Lloyd said 'The pace of change among food companies must be dramatically increased and to drive this, the government should set out a much more ambitious approach. Ultimately, you should be prepared to bring in legislation where voluntary action fails'.
In response, a health ministry official said 'The Responsibility Deal is achieving real change and is helping consumers to make healthier choices. Under this scheme leading food and drink companies have committed to reduce calorie levels in their products… The number of partners signed up to the scheme has more than doubled since the deal started'. True though 'We know that more needs to be done, and we will continue to work closely with industry to achieve this". All very polite.
Is help at hand? On 6 February the UK national press reported a new initiative by organic baby food entrepreneur Paul Lindley. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph (3) he said: 'Children don't understand food enough any more. Cooking is no longer compulsory in schools so people are failing to pass these skills on to their own children. We are becoming trapped in this vicious circle that leads to people making the wrong choices about food which inevitably results in malnutrition at one end of the scale and obesity at the other'.
The occasion was the launch of Averting a Recipe for Disaster, a manifesto and call to action he has masterminded. It is available here. It states that there is strong support for cooking to be on the core curriculum of state schools. It calls for free breakfasts at school for every child, a resident 'food enthusiast' in all schools, and free weekly cookery workshops for children and parents in local supermarkets. All major political parties should include a 25-year commitment in their 2015 election manifestos, to boost the nutrition of young children.
A more concerted approach has come from Sustain, the UK civil society body representing the interests of around 100 national organisations concerned with agriculture, food and health policy. Sustain and its predecessor body the National Food Alliance been campaigning on the issue of advertising and marketing of food products now for close to 20 years. At the end of January its report A Children's Future Fund was launched. It is available here. It is formally supported by 61 organisations, including the European Public Health Alliance, the National Heart Forum, the Royal Society for Public Health – and the World Public Health Nutrition Association.
In tune with work being done in the US, the report proposes that sugary drinks be taxed, that the tax be announced in the government's 2013 budget, and that the revenue be used for 'a children's future fund' to be spent on programmes to improve child health and well-being. At 20p (roughly 30 US cents) a litre, such a tax would raise around £1 billion (roughly $US 1.5 billion) a year.
Sustain chair Mike Rayner said: 'Just as we use fiscal measures to discourage drinking and smoking and help prevent people from dying early, there is now lots of evidence that the same approach would work for food. This modest proposal goes some way towards making the price of food reflect its true costs to society'. Still polite, but Sustain, a body somewhat similar to the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, is not going to go away.
- Joseph S. Gvt threatens regulation if brands don't act on health. Marketing Week, 23 January 2013.
- Smithers R. Voluntary food health plan failing, says Which? The Guardian, 10 December 2012.
- Paton G. Lack of knowledge about food is creating a major health crisis. The Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2013.