The food industry
‘The simple fact is that our diets have changed radically within the last 50 years with great and often harmful effects on our health,’ said Senator George McGovern in 1977 when working on the report Dietary Goals for the US. The report recognised that zoo much fat, too much sugar or salt are inked directly to heart disease, cancer and obesity, among other killer diseases.
In England and Wales for instance coronary heart disease has doubled in the years 1950 - 1974 in line with a diet that includes more processed food. As a result of McGovern’s report Americans began to change their eating habits and deaths from heart disease and cancer have fallen by a third.
Food manufacture is a major industry today as it offers more scope for profit than fresh, whole produce. For instance by ‘processing’ basic items manufacturers appear to add ‘value’ to them: so humble potatoes, selling at 63 cents per kilo are transformed with a slice, a dunk in deep fat and a sprinkle of salt into ‘potato swirls’ commanding $7.30 per kilo.
In the late 1970s there was general recognition in medical circles that Western diets were unhealthy. Guidelines which encourage breastfeeding. decreasing the intake of fat, sugar, salt and alcohol and increasing fibre consumption were formulated in the US, Australia, Britain, Norway and Sweden.
But to succeed, any national dietary policy which affects the commercial status quo needs strong government commitment. After all, the food industry has a lot of money and easy access to consumers through TV and press advertising. Sugar and chocolate companies in the UK for instance spenti~400 million ($440 million) in 1983 on promotion. And during one week’s study of the food and drink adverts on TV the Australian Consumers’ Association found that nearly 80 per cent directly contravened the government s dietary guidelines. But in few places has the political force of the food industry been felt as much as in Britain with the dilution and virtual shelving of the NACNE report.
The National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education (NACNE) was set up in 1979 to provide simple, accurate information on diet and nutrition. Its members included health professionals, government Ministries of Agriculture and Health and the Health Education Council a public information group funded by the Department of Health. The Food and Drink Industry Council was represented, as was the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) which despite its healthy-sounding title is wholly funded by the food industry. The first draft of the report, commissioned by the committee, was submitted in 1981. It recommended cuts of 25 per cent in fat intake, 50 per cent in sugar and 50 per cent in salt.
‘A shoddy document’ was how BNF’s Dr Turner viewed the draft. He went on that there was ‘no justification’ to cut down on sugar. This despite the fact that sugar is the major cause of tooth decay and obesity leading to heart diseases. Britain was the third biggest world consumer of sugar in 1980.
Political and commercial wrangling dogged the NACNE report through the next two years. The food industry even produced its own reports, for example Implementation of dietary guidelines: obstacles and
opposition published in 1982 by the industry-funded BNF. It concluded that the diet resulting from the NACNE recommendations would ‘require major changes in eating habits’ - clearly a bad thing from the industry’s point of view.
The fourth and final draft of the report limped into publication in April 1983. But not all the committee members supported it. Those against included, not surprisingly, the British Nutrition Foundation and the Food and Drink Industry Council.
Although originally aimed at ‘stimulating national debate’ the NACNE Report’s preface states that it is ‘not designed for the general public’. And certainly the cumbersome 13-word title and medical language ensure that virtually no-one will read it. Fortunately for the health of consumers a translation exists, called The Food Scandal (see below).
Asked what he thought about dietary guidelines, Tim Fortescue (ex-Tory MP and at the time secretary-general of the Food and Drink Industry Council) quipped that a sensible guideline would be that ‘there should be less strychnine in food: Compare this with McGovern’s acceptance that ‘those of us within government have an obligation’ to acknowledge the dangers of our processed food diets.
In Britain at least 25,000 deaths a year could be prevented if food legislation like that in the US and Australia were introduced and enforced. But while governments are swayed by industry and political forces rather than the needs of the general population then many more people are going to die unnecessarily because of what they eat.
‘The public wants some guidance, wants to know the truth,’ said Goerge McGovern.
How right he was.
The Food Scandal by Caroline Walker and Geoffrey Cannon (Century Publishing London £7.95).