by Marion Nestle
Nov 14 2010

No joke: Food industry to write U.K. policy on diet and health

I had a good laugh when Dick Jackson, who chairs the Environmental Health Sciences department at UCLA’s School of Public Health, forwarded this article: “McDonald’s and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy.”

I assumed this was another priceless piece from The Onion, whose recent article on the effects of the U.S. Farm Bill on soybean production is equally hilarious.

But no such luck.  The British food writer, Felicity Lawrence, has three investigative reports in the November 12 issue of The Guardian (U.K.).  You want to see food politics in action?  Watch what is happening in Britain since the conservative government of David Cameron took over (I have commented on this previously).

Lawrence writes that the U.K. Department of Health has invited companies such as McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo to form “food networks” to write policies to address public health problems such as obesity, alcohol, and diet-related disease.  I have highlighted some of the critical issues in red.

The food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, and Compass, the catering company famously pilloried by Jamie Oliver for its school menus of turkey twizzlers. The food deal’s sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo, owner of Walkers crisps.

The leading supermarkets are an equally strong presence, while the responsibility [for the] deal’s physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.

In early meetings, these commercial partners have been invited to draft priorities and identify barriers, such as EU legislation, that they would like removed. They have been assured by Lansley [the health secretary] that he wants to explore voluntary not regulatory approaches…Using the pricing of food or alcohol to change consumption has been ruled out. One group was told that the health department did not want to lead, but rather hear from its members what should be done.

As for what this means:

Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, said: “This is the equivalent of putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free spaces. We know this ‘let’s all get round the table approach’ doesn’t work, because we’ve all tried it before, including the last Conservative government. This isn’t ‘big society’, it’s big business.”

Lawrence has two additional articles on the background of this move.  “First goal of David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ is to encourage healthy living” explains that the focus of these efforts will be on food and alcohol choices:

The idea is that individuals can be persuaded – “nudged” – into making better choices for themselves without force or regulation. The coalition agreement talks about “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves.”

Her second background piece, “Who is the government’s health deal with big business really good for?”, explains how this happened.

It must have felt like a new dawn for the food and drinks industries. After more than four years of determined and co-ordinated lobbying, they were about to achieve the corporate PR agency dream: being invited to write the policy themselves. And, if the Conservatives won the election, in Lansley they would have a health secretary who understood them.

He not only subscribed to the libertarian view that public health should be more a matter of personal responsibility than government action; he bought in to the whole pro-business PR view of the world….Lansley had already adopted several of the industry’s favoured approaches to the food, drink and health crises, promising that “government and FSA promotion of traffic light labelling will stop”; that there would be no mandatory extension of advertising restrictions; and that alcohol strategy would focus on the responsible drinking messages and improved labelling the industry preferred to regulation.

Lansley also committed to avoiding a narrow focus on “fear of junk foods” that might demonise individual manufacturers’ products, and to talking instead in terms of diets as a whole, of the balance of energy in and energy out, and of portion size. He had said the government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) would “highlight the continuing contribution made by business to improving diet by reformulating its products“.

Yeah, right.  Even The Onion could not make this up.

Could this happen here?  Grass-roots democracy, anyone?

  • Not surprisingly I covered this story on my blog too.

    I’ve decided that from now on, anytime a governmental official makes a mind-numbingly stupid decision that has the potential to impact on obesity rates I’m calling it a “Lansley”.

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  • Brad F

    What will be interesting to see are the rates of UK heart disease, diabetes, and obesity over the next 5-10 years, assuming the policies remain in place.

    If they rise precipitously, it will be a powerful piece of data to add to the regulatory armamentarium. However, if rates move in lock step with USA for example, we will also have to prepare ourselves to answer some interesting questions. Granted, it is not quite an apples to apples comparison, but close enough to at least draw some provocative semi-conclusions.


  • Mitzi

    This is difficult to comprehend. This is NOT a “conservative” move- it is an insane one! Conservative would be for Britain and the US to look objectively at their rising health care costs, realize that we can no longer afford to let the junk food purveyors line our halls with vending machines and food courts, and put in place simple changes our great-grandmothers would have approved (stop feeding government-subsidized trash to children and the poor, put fresh food marts in every neighborhood, teach kids and adults to grow food and cook, make neighborhoods safe to walk/bike in, make sure everyone has access to fresh food, fresh air, and sunshine). Don’t force anything, but offer what makes sense. And tax the junk food the way they do tobacco now. Conservative should mean keeping traditional values, including valuing good health, not selling out to the highest bidder and refusing to regulate known harm.

  • Anthro

    So much for the “coalition” government. Doesn’t seem that the Lib-Dems are getting much input into policy.

    This is truly mind-numbingly short-sighted in terms of public health. How do middle school aged kids “learn to make better choices” in such a system? And it’s NOT just about “moving more”, as Marion has reminded us many times–it’s mostly about what goes IN. For example:

    A $.99 bag of Cheetoes (2 oz)- That would be 320 calories–about one hour of hard running to get rid of that!

    Nutrition Facts
    Serving Size 1 oz (28.0 g)
    Amount Per Serving
    Calories 160
    Calories from Fat 90
    % Daily Value*
    Total Fat 10.0g15%
    Saturated Fat 1.5g8%
    Sodium 290mg12%
    Total Carbohydrates 15.0g5%
    Dietary Fiber 1.0g4%
    Sugars 1.0g
    Protein 2.0g
    Vitamin A 0% • Vitamin C 0%
    Calcium 0% • Iron 4%
    * Based on a 2000 calorie diet

    And this: (from a site call Trend Hunters)

    The wildly creative product team at Frito-Lay has found a way to make their Cheeto product fun again: triple its size to monstrous proportions! In a depressed market, the brand could feel attention slowly shifting away from America’s favorite shocking-orange snack. However, today’s release of the new golf ball-sized Cheetos opens a whole new dimension of cheesy goodness.

    And some new “dimensions” will be gained by the consumers of these, no doubt. Would this be an example of the industry policing themselves?

    Oh, yeah; add some soda calories to the above and then tell me how many of these kids are going to be entering a marathon to run it all off.

    Shame on this new government and I hope the British peole (and the NHS) don’t let this slip through.

  • Nothing shocks me anymore. Now Dr. Ornish is shilling for Mars … home of Milky Way, Skittles, Starbursts and more …

  • Kelly

    So disturbing. Meanwhile, San Francisco, California just banned Happy Meal toys with meals greater than 600 calories and 35% calories from fat:

  • Anthro


    Terrific post! You said it very well. Your suggestions would not even be that expensive to implement, especially when compared to the cost of rising obesity rates. Common sense seems to have gone the way of the Dodo.

  • S. F. Malin

    Is this any different than the way the USDA does the same in the US. Perhaps it is a more homiest way to develop guidelines.

  • Cathy Richards

    I am speechless. Wordless.

    Looking forward to your next book: “Food Politics: Supersized” or maybe “Food Politics: Dumb and Dumber”.

  • Subvert

    @Cathy Richards – how about “Food Politics: Selling out our society along with any meaningful future”.

    The best government money can buy..!

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  • Bobby

    all hail our corporate masters!

    Seriously if the corporations don’t rule us, who will? Certainly not our elected representatives, as they already work full-time for the corporations.

    Nice way to pay back all the campaign contributions, PM Cameron. Now this is transparency!

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  • Kim

    The U.S. was light years ahead of the UK on this when it put the school lunch program under the USDA.

  • Pete

    @ SF Malin


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