‘Consumers need more help to choose health’
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham thinks we are too dumb to be allowed to choose breakfast cereals for ourselves. The trouble is, so it seems does everyone else in a position of influence.
AA Gill is quite right: like most other people, I had missed it. In amongst all the chatter about fat taxes and advertising bans, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s suggestion that what we need is legally imposed maximums on the content of processed foods passed me by.
‘Consumers need more help to choose health’, said Burnham. ‘But there should be some maximums for sugar, salt and fat. I think I have been persuaded of the case for this. Voluntary efforts [by producers to reformulate] have not worked and it’s time for a different approach. There are some products on the market that are so full of salt, sugar or fat they are unacceptable and they have to be brought in line. The amount of sugar in many cereals is shocking.’
Now it is certainly true that there are plenty of products on the supermarket shelves that have lots of sugar in them. A report by Which? in February found ‘The cereal highest in added sugar was Kellogg’s Frosties, which is 37% sugar. Own-brand chocolate rice cereals from several supermarkets came a close second at 36% sugar… Several supermarket brands of honey nut cornflakes had 33.6% sugar. Even cereals marked as ‘healthy’ such as Kellogg’s All-Bran Flakes (22%) and Special K (17%), were high in sugar. Alpen Original Muesli had 23.1% sugar, although this included sugar from fruit, while Dorset Cereals Simply Delicious Muesli had 16.8% sugar, though this was all from fruit.’
But you don’t really require special powers to figure out that Frosties and Honey Nut Cornflakes are eyewateringly sweet. You can just taste them. But if you like the taste, that should be your choice.
The views of one shadow minister, that aren’t even party policy, are not in themselves all that important. What’s worse is that there seems little principled opposition to this idea. Instead, those who think Burnham’s idea is a non-starter seem to be more troubled by the practicalities. Some favour ‘fat taxes’ over regulation. But for Burnham, such policies put the onus (that is, the control) in the hands of consumers. ‘You aren’t focusing your efforts on the creator of the problem, which is the manufacturer – so we have to start with them’, he said.
The response of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents UK food manufacturers, didn’t seem terribly different from the salt obsessives at Consensus Action on Salt and Health. So, the FDF spokesperson said that regulation would be ‘a very lengthy process and could negatively impact the excellent voluntary work that is underway to change recipes’; while CASH’s Katherine Jenner said ‘to regulate it would take five to 10 years because it would be a very complicated thing to do. I support it but I think it’s not politically feasible.’
It is one thing to tell people that too much salt, sugar or fat is bad for you (though in all three cases, there is a very significant degree of exaggeration about these effects). It is another to censor what people can eat.
The result is food that really doesn’t taste as you hope if would. As one unhappy bunny explained on spiked in 2009, this leads, for example, to Digestive biscuits that don’t taste like Digestives: ‘What was once the nation’s favourite biscuit has morphed into a rather pathetic, pale imitation of itself. The Digestive that sustained, nourished and comforted a generation through two world wars and played its part in keeping the home fires burning is no more. The callous tick of a ballpoint pen of some joyless Whitehall functionary has managed to finish off the biscuit that even Hitler failed to crush.’
Which brings us back to AA Gill. In The Sunday Times today - in a column ostensibly about London’s latest bloody posh burger joint (did we really need another?) - he writes about Burnham’s plan: ‘This belief that someone else is responsible for your health, your weight, your fitness, the quality of your life, and that people — you again — are so pathetically hapless, congenitally weak, ignorant and feckless that you need civil servants to feed you is such a despairing, dispiriting and desperate view of humanity.’
Rightly, Gill fingers the remnants of the left as the worst offenders. ‘How did the Labour movement that got children out of pits and women into university, stopped men having to work 12-hour days, 364 days a year, that championed education and health, end up telling working people how much butter and sugar they can have in their crumble? How did freedom from ignorance, oppression and exploitation come down to freedom from choice?’
It’s a fairly rhetorical question. The left fell out of love with the working classes because - shame on them - they didn’t vote for the failed policies of social democracy. If the lived experience of dealing with the state was so bad, many of them concluded they would be better off getting the state off their backs. That anti-state idea was the message from Margaret Thatcher and it is all those discussions about ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Basildon Man’ and the ‘C2s’ (the skilled working class) that helped to cement the idea that the working classes were no longer a force for change but a mass of individuals that needed to be controlled.
In fact, Thatcherism was largely a myth and the Conservatives did little or nothing to get the state off our backs, even in their heyday. Privatisation, for example, really only took off in her third term and left us in many instances with highly regulated private companies instead of highly regulated public ones. And once Thatcher’s one big idea had worked itself - when in doubt, attack the labour movement - the Conservatives were just as bereft of ideas about what to do next. It was, after all, the Conservative government of John Major that produced a White Paper, The Health of the Nation, in 1992 to set targets on public health. Senior Tories are now, by and large, as enthusiastic about regulating people as the liberal left.
What we need is not endless state intervention, but the freedom to make choices for ourselves - even the ‘wrong’ ones.