Reality TV food policy
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Ruth Kelly, seems to have received a achieved a boost to her popularity after she announced that from September 2006 'junk food' will be banned from the nation's school canteens. Riding on the wave of interest/disgust generated by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TV series, which featured the now infamous Turkey Twizzler style of catering, she had earlier announced, just 6 weeks before the last election, that the government had found an extra £280million to plough into 'improvements' in children's diet. This, according to Kelly, had nothing to do with the TV programmes – the government were going to that anyway she claimed, much to most people's disbelief.
Her more recent conversion to the food activists' cause also looks suspiciously like another populist, knee-jerk reaction than an evidence-based approach to policy. Out will go 'poor quality' burgers and sausages, to be replaced with low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt alternatives. And no, our nation's children will no longer be able to indulge themselves with a fizzy drink of bar of chocolate because these will also be noticeably absent from the school vending machines.
Few people have raised much in the way of criticism of Ruth Kelly's new campaigning, apart from the cynics who point out that in order to provide kids with a decent meal we might need to spend a little more than the current 40p or less per head on the ingredients — and yes, dinner ladies tend to be pretty unskilled, but perhaps that reflects their appallingly low wages. There have been few suggestions, however, that the plan is anything other than basically a 'good idea', or that it probably won't work.
A rather lonely voice in this otherwise very one-sided debate was heard recently at the Sense About Science 2006 Lecture — that of Sir John Krebs, until recently head of the government's own Food Standards Agency. Speaking to the title of 'Science advice, impartiality and policy' he stressed the need for government strategy in the field of health and nutrition to be firmly based on evidence rather than on expediency or response to popular clamour. In his speech he specifically singled out Ruth Kelly's proposals for the banning of 'junk food' in schools as failing on four specific counts.
First, he said, there is no evidence that the proposals will work. We have to remember that since Jamie's TV series the uptake of school meals has fallen between 12% and 16% across the country. One could argue that a 'bad' school dinner is probably better than no school dinner at all. Secondly, Krebs pointed out the very obvious fact that there is no scientific definition of 'junk food'. And he is absolutely right. The term is merely a pejorative one to describe food that we think is in some respects bad, unhealthy, immoral or just processed, rather than, say natural or good for you. In this context I urge everybody to think back to their own experiences of school dinners — mine before the advent of most modern 'convenience foods' and the like. We forget what awful stodge was inflicted on us back then — stuff which in remembrance makes a Turkey Twizzler seem a positive attraction that we might have had fist-fights over.
Sir John's third reason for casting doubt on Kelly's plans was that there had been no cost-benefit analysis conducted. Could children's diets be improved more effectively or more cheaply by alternative strategies? Finally, he noted that there had been no significant consultation or public engagement on the plan. Is this, really, what parents and teachers want? In the short debate after the end of his lecture Krebs opined, as politely as he could, that that the Secretary of State's proposals were 'heading in the wrong direction'.
All of this amounts to a pretty damning assessment of the government's attempts to improve children's diets from a man who probably has more credibility in this area than anyone else, including Jamie Oliver. To use the term 'junk food' at all is, effectively, to rule out any impartial or science-based discussion of the subject. Is an organic cheese sandwich, for example, 'better' for you than a 'low-grade' burger, or does it contain roughly the same amount of fat and salt? We think fruit juices are infinitely preferable to fizzy drinks, but they both contain about the same amount of sugar, unless it is a 'diet' fizz of course, in which case the fruit juice compares very unfavourably.
Nobody wants to deny that children deserve better food in schools than they are currently getting. But do we really need to follow slavishly the prejudices of a celebrity chef in order to achieve that — a man who repeats unhesitatingly the quite false claim that today's children will die before their parents because of their poor diet? Instead of basing policy around so-called 'reality' TV programmes, in which lurid references are made to physiologically impossible phenomena such as children vomiting their own faeces, it might be more sensible to have regard for science rather than dogma – evidence that suggests that Kelly's plans might be doomed to failure.
The more the government pursues a line of demonising easily identified 'culprits' in its 'war on obesity' the more it will fail to address the real issues and may even generate quite contrary outcomes to those intended. After Jamie Oliver gave the Turkey Twizzler a 'right good slagging' the producer of this particular food item, Bernard Matthews, claimed that sales increased by a very substantial 32%. He also pointed out, quite correctly it seems, that his 'bootiful' product contains less than a third of the fat found in conventional pork sausages – even organic ones.
Today's school kids are little different from those of my Baby Boomer generation. They are not going to eat stuff just because Jamie thinks it is 'good for them' or conforms to his narrow notion of what constitutes a 'pukka' meal. They will, as they did in his programs, chuck it in the bin. They will resent the new food snobbery, they will even perversely seek out what is 'bad' in defiance of authority. The smuggling of kebabs and burgers into school will take on the same status as a quick smoke behind the bike sheds in my day — a very clear 'up yours' to authority.
Perhaps Ruth Kelly and her coterie of advisors never did such 'naughty' things. If that's the case it's a pity, because if they had they might now take a little more heed of Sir John's warning that this could all just backfire on them.
March 28 2006