Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Traffic light chaos as everyone ducks the issues

In the last week, there has been a flurry of discussion over a new system of food labelling.

Many shoppers are, apparently, confused by packets and want advice on what’s healthy and what’s not.

And so we have the new ‘traffic light’ system, which an increasing number of supermarkets have agreed to use.

A number of writers have already explained how it works – or more to the point, why it’s dismal. There’s an excellent and detailed explanation here from Zöe Harcombe  and another here from Joanna Blythman.

To précis, the system intends to use traffic light-style graphics to warn people whether a food is ‘healthy’ in terms of how much fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt it contains, based on certain guidelines.

So, because every one of those for, say, diet Coke, Shredded Wheat and white flour comes in low, those foods get green ‘lights’ across the board.

Yet using this same method of labelling, olives would be in the orange on two counts, in the red once (salt) and in the green only once (sugar).

A rump steak sees two green (salt and sugar), one orange (fat) and one red (saturated fat).

A whole mackerel gets an orange for both fat in total and saturated fat, but green for salt and sugar.

And pasta is green on all counts.

So in other words, if this system is correct, you can eat pretty much unlimited amounts of cereals and pasta (with artificially-sweetened drinks on the side), but need to be more careful about consumption of oily fish and even more careful about meat and olives.

I suspect that most readers here already know that that is, frankly, errant nonsense.

For starters, it falls into the trap of providing information on fat that is surely out of date – and even the standard mantra of recent years understands that some fats, such as those you get in oily fish, are essential to continued good health.

So along comes a scheme that is saying all the wrong things – the only wonder is that the supermarkets have taken so long to agree to implement it. Because it is going to lend a false health badge to at least some processed foods.

On assorted forums, people have been commenting that this illustrates the problem of government interfering in a matter such as health.

But while it would be nice to see a world in which no state intervention was required in food (or many other things), the reality needs something different.

In discussions of market economies, the relationship between the large company and the individual customer is treated as though it takes place on a level playing field.

It does not. This is David v Goliath.

Big businesses have huge resources to invest in all manner of methods for promoting their product. They have entire departments dedicated to working out what works as advertising and PR – and even the psychology of the customer, so that they can best exploit what they find (see here for a little more detail)

We know that big businesses such as supermarkets use all sorts of methods to confuse the customer. For instance, they’re supposed to provide the information to allow you to compare the relative prices of different products.

The most obvious way to do this is by giving a price per a set measurement – so for instance, if you’re selling carrots loose, bagged and prepared, you label each with the cost per 100g or per kilo, making the comparison quick and easy.

But there are sneaky ways to make this less clear.

Take this little example.

Online at Ocado the other week, two different jars of celery salt were available. They were different sizes – one was 80g and one 100g. The larger one was organic. The prices were listed – with the cost per 20g listed for one and the cost per 100g for the other.

Now the calculation is hardly difficult, but why not simply use the same for both?

And we’ve all read about how offers in supermarkets turn out to be nothing of the sort – the price having been whacked up for a period before it’s then put on ‘offer’, for example.

As a small businessman – and a Conservative councillor – told me a few weeks ago, regulation protects both businesses and the customer.

There are plenty of theories around about why the UK has seen such a massive rise in obesity (and related illnesses) in the last three decades. What is pretty much undisputed are the health ramifications and the costs that come with this, both in human and financial terms.

So there are serious reasons for any government – which is, after all, supposed to be a government of the people – to be concerned.

‘Get rid of regulation’, some say. ‘That’ll sort it all out.’

‘People should take responsibility for themselves,’ chime other voices.

Well, yes. But why is big business never expected to behave with any more responsibility than that for its shareholders?

Increasingly over the last 30 years, we’ve seen the onus for responsible behaviour in any transaction shifted to the customer alone. And with it, the onus for the customer to be more educated about a product than the seller.

We all have to be experts in finance now, so that we don’t get (miss) sold the wrong pension or mortgage, because companies are no longer in the business of taking pride in caring for their customers, but simply of maximising their profits.

If you’re as old as me, you may even remember the day when banks were trusted institutions.

Today, though, it’s assumed that you’ll research anything you’re considering buying – there’s a reason that Which? Has become so important.

Whatever happened to decent service, eh? How much of our time (outside work) are we now expected to invest in educating ourselves for life in this consumer paradise – because big retailers and big finance cannot, in essence, be trusted? And why should they – it’s our responsibility.

But those questions don’t just apply to financial products – they apply to food too. And there are many things that hinder people being able to cut through the sneakiness to make good choices:

• it’s a simple fact that meaningful choice itself has been reduced. In the last 30 years, the major supermarkets have gone from having 20% of the UK grocery retail trade to having 80% of it. There is a reason that such words and phrases as ‘Tescopoly’ and ‘Tesco Town’ have entered the lexicon;

• at the same time, skills have declined. Not only do we have far fewer proper fishmongers and butchers, but domestic cookery skills have declined too. Vast amounts of knowledge are being lost. Concomitantly, the amount of ready meals sold and eaten in the UK has risen. In 2005, the UK consumed more ready meals than the rest of Europe combined.

Only the other day, this blog highlighted adverts from fast food firms pushing the line that cooking is too difficult and you’d be better having a takeaway.

The point is that we do need regulation – but we need it to be sensible, to be meaningful and to be properly enforced.

The traffic light farce is indicative of how successive governments, for whatever reason, have failed to tackle the key problems, which in essence are the over-dominance of our food culture by processed food and the big supermarkets.

Planning rules need to be tightened or adjusted to help to protect small businesses from voracious, big competitors that simply have so much financial clout that they can bully their way to getting anything they want.

They could also be adjusted to make it more difficult to change the use of premises – so you can’t just buy out a bookshop, for instance, and turn it into yet another franchise of a fast food outlet or a coffee chain.

The state of local high streets in general is a cause for concern – councils have not helped by cutting parking, while supermarkets are able to offer free parking. Such things need addressing, because the situation at present is unbalanced and favours big businesses over small ones.

Talk of a ‘fat tax’ (discussed recently by the Fabian Society as a possible approach to the problems by a future Labour government) is as flawed as the traffic light system and for similar reasons – it would be sending a simplistic and nutritionally unsound statement that all fat is bad. This is wrong, and the problem is not simply fat (and/or sugar) but processed food in general.

Government needs to remember its role and take on big business for the protection of the individual – and the community that is made up of those individuals.

We need to start educating children and young people – not with GCSE lessons telling them how a factory makes processed food, but about how they can learn to cook and bake something that’s then worth eating.

School dinners are currently being reviewed after the sheer debacle produced by the privatisation of the service in the 1980s led to the abomination of the ‘turkey twizzler’. Things were improved by the previous government after much campaigning by Jamie Oliver and organisations such as trade union UNISON – but there is some way to go.

Ban any vending machines from schools. There is absolutely no need for them. Snacking is another problem – and, of course, another big money spinner for very large businesses.

Let’s have a discussion about just how much ‘choice’ children should have at meal times in schools.

We don’t expect young children to choose what subjects they’re going to study in the classroom – why should there be an almost gushing belief that they must have choice when they sit down to lunch?

The lack of a choice in schools elsewhere around the world is not seen as some dismal assault on children’s rights. Yet exploiting children’s lack of knowledge, experience and susceptibility to potentially addictive sugary and salty tastes in the drive for increased profits is an assault on their rights.

And don’t forget that, even when catering companies boast about the healthy options that make available, they’re clever about how they market the least healthy/cheapest options to children.

Nothing that I’ve fleetingly touched on here is particularly radical or even original – and much of it works rather well in other countries, including but not limited to France.

If it does seem radical, that’s simply rather a sad indicator of how far we have gone along the path of believing that profit for big business is the most important factor in a great many decisions.

It seems odd to remember that Conservatives used to be conservative, championing small business as well as big, and stressing the importance of concepts such as heritage and tradition.

Now, in the case of the Parliamentary Conservative party at least, together with it’s mouthpieces in the media (traditional and social), these things seem to have been foresworn in favour of a belief that only profit matters and big is beautiful – so that, if a small business cannot compete with a transnational behemoth, then it’s its own fault and it deserves to go under.

Nothing else matters – and in the kind of attitude exemplified by the US Tea Party idiots, we're seeing increasing pretence that any regulation is pretty much communism.

Indeed, the shattering of our culinary heritage is just one of the root causes/problems of the present situation.

In the meantime, Labour has offered little by way of contrast, with the governments of 1997-2010 continuing the path of deregulation that had been started in the 1980s, and which helped lead to 2008 and the financial crisis.

It also accepted money from big business – thus inevitably limiting its ability to regulate the worst excesses of those businesses. And now it seems to be perpetually running around, like headless (GM, factory-farmed) chicken, without much of a clue what to do.

So whether from ideology or fear or a belief that there’s no alternative – or a mix of all three – governments are allowing the drive for ever-increasing profits to come before the health of the nation as a whole.

The traffic light system is a bad joke – but it shouldn’t be taken as a red light for regulation. It should be a green light for creating regulation that actually works.

• For further reading on a range of issues touched on here:

Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets and Bad Food Britain by Joanna Blythman are essential reading for anyone concerned about the issues.

The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman adds to an understanding of the impact of the biggest supermarket chains on communities and jobs in the drive for ever cheaper prices.

A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc is part autobiography, part food science and part food philosophy – with recipes. It’s very good on the impact of the destruction of our food heritage – and what food heritage means in real terms. It’s also a delightful read.

Escape the Diet Trap by Dr John Briffa explains, scientifically but in an understandable way, why ‘all fat is bad’ is cobblers and why it’s utterly counterproductive in terms of weight issues.

Fat: An appreciation of a misunderstood ingredient with recipes by Jennifer McLagan does some of the same as Briffa, but from a chef’s perspective and with recipes.

You can also get involved with the latest review of school meals here.

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