Monday, 25 October 2010

Debate in the House of Lords on Obesity Comes to Fat End

Yes, I too would like thank Lord Whitty (Labour) for introducing the nutritional crisis, or more specifically, the obesity crisis in the UK for debate in the House of Lords recently. And also, thanks to all the Lords, Ladies and Earls who made the much appreciated contributions to the debate.

Lord Giddens (Labour), in particular, set out the scale of the crisis by mentioning the World Health Organisation claim in 1997 that obesity was a global epidemic running out of control. Despite some assurances that matters have improved slightly in recent years, the fact that virtually one out of every four people in Britain is obese, not just overweight, is certainly a crisis. Add to this, the fact supplied by Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative) that “nearly three-quarters of a million people in the UK are classified as morbidly obese-overweight” and the size of the problem starts to become quite clear.

How is the Government to tackle this problem? One suggestion is to start young.  Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench) focused on the importance of intrauterine nutrition or, in other words, nutrition before birth.

Baroness Thornton (Labour) mentioned that every child should have an entitlement to learn to cook. But one may ask, why not make it mandatory that every child must learn to cook along with read and write?

Unfortunately, as Lord Whitty pointed out, the incoming government has abolished the School Food Trust, a body designed to improve the quality of school meals. He also points out that 716,000 children are clinically obese.

Another suggestion is to ban advertising, at least to the young. Lord Whitty said that advertising is a problem, although progress has been made with television advertising banned during children-specific programmes.

Lord Giddens (Labour) would also support an advertising ban to children under 12 as well as a ban on trans-fats. In addition, he claims that there should be a tax on fast food and extra taxes should be added to food and drink which are high in fat, sugar and salt.

Lord Whitty, along with others, spoke of better labelling as another means to tackle this problem, but New labelling requirements for US chain restaurants and vending machines shows that labels are unlikely to make much difference.

A third suggestion was discussed by Lord Rea (Labour) who took a realistic view of the situation and said that “more use must be made of statutory regulation of food manufacturing, advertising and marketing.” He used the phrase ‘obesogenic-food’ to describe the energy-dense, less nutritious products that are cheaper and increasing the health divide in obesity, heart disease and cancer. Because we live in a capitalist world dependent on profit, he suggested that we may need to restrict the freedom of individuals and commercial enterprises to improve public health. The government in New York State and New York City are attempting to do this, but Will NYC Sugary Drinks Restriction Succeed?

By citing particular public health problems, Lord Rea said that the Government could explore ways around EU regulations.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) would support better regulation to protect the consumer as well.

And then some more general comments were made.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench) made a comment about the overwhelming choice of food and drinks now available in our supermarkets. Indeed, in EU policy for agriculture, food and rural areas, mention is made that “[t]he number of foodstuffs for sale in a typical retail store increased from 550 in 1954 to more than 10,000 in 1995 (European Commission, 2007).”

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Liberal Democrat) raised the issue of the million people in the world suffering from chronic hunger with a comment that it is all part of the same problem as people suffering from malnutrition in the UK. Although my New Analysis of the Undernourished does not cover this point specifically, both the malnourished and the undernourished are suffering because of the global food industry.

She also made the interesting observation that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) lacks the necessary teeth to take on the food industry’s lobbying. As she mentions, part of this has to do with the fast-paced developing technologies, such as nanotechnologies. But also, cloning and genetically modified organisms are relevant to this issue.

As vice-chairman of the board of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour which was called Natural Justice,  Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench) was able to give input on the research being carried out that shows that poor nutrition can lead to violence and anti-social behaviour.

And the Earl of Erroll (Crossbench) mentioned that he had a Kit Kat, but did not have the time or powerful enough glasses to read the label (as is the case for many people). I provide a list of ingredients as obtained from a wiki answer to show that they are controversial.


A primary ingredient is sugar and artificial flavour gives it the unique taste. If it has hydrogenated soybeen oil, it has trans-fat, the negative health effects of which were discussed in detail by Lord Patel and Lord Giddens. But if it has palm oil instead, this is controversial because of wanton global deforestation in this industry. My view is that Using Palm Oil is a Slippery Slope Approach to Sustainability and Health.

Furthermore, Nestlé, the maker of Kit Kat, is purported to be the biggest food company in the world.  When one considers Nestlé’s products, this is cause for concern.  Every single purchase of one of Nestlé’s products reinforces this situation.

Rather than reaching for a chocolate bar or packet of crisps, I would recommend that Crazy Jack Organic isn't so crazy! when we need a lift. Dried fruit and nuts (with sea salt for those who need it) are the better option. Roasted nuts are quick and easy to make at home and savoury roasted almonds are a favourite.

And then we come to the fat end ...

Earl Howe (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Quality), Health; Conservative), Minister at the Department of Health, which as of October 1st took on the remit of nutrition from the Food Standards Agency assures us that “[t]he Government are committed to improving the health of the nation.”

But this commitment is going to be dependent on whether or not transcorporations live up to their side of the Responsibility Deal. “The Responsibility Deal is a partnership between government and business that balances proportionate regulation with corporate responsibility to tackle the health problems associated with poor diet, alcohol abuse and a lack of exercise.”

And emphasis will remain on the Exchequer. The fact that food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector must be maintained to keep the money coming in and people in employment. The noble Earl states that “[we] must be careful not to strangle this particular golden goose with excessive regulation.”

He also said that “[w]here we can achieve our objectives through voluntary agreements, we should do so.” But if this means more solutions such as Nestlé Proposes Band-Aid, it will undoubtedly have little positive impact on the obesity epidemic.

Further, “[p]ublic health must not be about nannying consumers or demonising particular foods. We need to find new approaches, founded in behavioural science, which nudge people in the right direction.”

And to put it another way, “[l]egislation would undoubtedly produce an additional burden, which could stifle industry innovation.” If he is referring to the sort of innovation carried out by Nestlé, it may be that a little stifling would be a good move. The Government’s strategy to “make industry joint owners of the long-term public health” will not promote health because it is at the opposite polar end to profit.

Finally, Earl Howe stated that “[c]onsumers also need to take responsibility.” With wrapping so pretty, addictive products, 3 for £1.19 and a sign telling us to Treat Yourself! - that is a tall order.

In conclusion, if the Government is to place primary importance on money, then why does it not expect consumers to do the same? Why is it that consumers are not taking responsibility when buying the cheapest products that are mostly bad for health, but the Government are taking responsibility when facilitating the sale of such products?

A link to this article has been sent to each Lord, Lady and Earl mentioned above as well as Simon Burns MP - Minister of State for Health who is responsible for legislation in this area.

Photo 1, I took this photo in Tesco Serpentine Green, Peterborough, UK (10/10/10)

Photo 2 credit (packaged food aisles at Fred Meyer, an American grocery store).

Photo 3, I took this photo in a newsagent shop in Peterborough City Centre, UK (2/6/10).