A number of today's newspapers bring us the news that a panel of parents in the UK, recruited by the 'independent' campaign group, the Food Commission, find food manufacturers guilty of promoting unhealthy foodstuffs for children. One product was described as "absolutely vile over-processed rubbish", according to the Times which led with 'Vile food for children attacked'. The Mail, Telegraph, Sun ('The Lunchbox from Hell') and Independent also regurgitated uncritically the text of the Commission's press release, dubbing the group 'an independent research charity."
It was only the Scotsman that questioned some of the glib assumptions underlying the Food Commission's report. Commenting on the implication that what children need is a good school dinner, rather than a 'junk food' box, Frank O'Donnell noted:
The "lunchbox from hell" may be a modern invention, as 25 years ago the majority of pupils relied on school dinners. But the notion that the school meal of the 1970s was doing a good job is nonsense, according to Joe Harvey, a former teacher and now director of the Health Education Trust. "We should not delude ourselves. Back then, the standard of the cooking was dire," he said. … Today, a child will select their meal from a cash cafeteria and they can choose wisely and have a nice balance. But they can also choose a mixture of chips and burgers five days a week."
What none of the papers even hinted at, however, is the fact that the Food Commission and its sister organisations have a long history of showing complete disregard for anything which looks like a balanced approach to sampling public opinion. The co-director of the Commission, Tim Lobstein, was the man who led the 'British National Survey on Genetically Modified Foods', conducted by the Food Information Trust, of which Lobstein is also a co-director (see F.I.T only for the waste bin). In the questionnaires sent out mainly to FIT's 'friends', some helpful notes were provided, including "While the government and the food industry tell us that everything will be okay, your survey responses will help us at the Food Information Trust to develop and distribute a better view of the general public's opinions on GM foods." Such prefacing statements are guaranteed to rule out the possibility of unbiased data.
The questions in the FIT survey also precluded a fair sampling of views – e.g. "what specific groups of people do you feel may be at particular risk from the unknown consequences of eating foods made from GM ingredients?" – a question very much in the "when did you stop beating your wife" category. Despite all of this Lobstein concluded that the aim of the survey was "to provide reliable, independently researched information on the food we all eat."
Given this track record it was, therefore, rather surprising that no newspaper that covered the latest 'independent' and 'scientific' study by the Food Commission bothered even to look at the sampling and methods employed. Had they done so they might have been a little less uncritical.
The sample of 800 parents was recruited by the Food Commission through a page on its web site with the banner head "Join the Angry Parents Jury". Just in case potential jury members were unaware of quite what was required of them, the Commission offered the following hints:
- Do you wish it was easier to buy healthy foods for children?
- Does your toddler nag you for sweets displayed at the checkout?
- Do you wish your child's school had more to offer at break time than coke and crisps?
- Do you wish TV adverts weren't always promoting junk food?
To ram the message home even further the web page helpfully reported:
"Food Commission research shows that over three-quarters of food sold as suitable for children is stuffed full of fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or artificial additives. In addition, these junk foods are promoted with high-pressure selling techniques targeted directly at children. We think this is unacceptable, and we know that many parents think so too."
The idea that from such blatant biasing of results could come anything which might represent the views of parents in general, or stand as a balanced critique of children's snack food, is absurd. Not only is the parents' jury worthless in fact-finding terms, it does no service to those with genuine and understandable worries about their children's diets and how to encourage their consumption of a wider range of foods.
We have long held the view that simply demonising specific food items does little to encourage a more balanced and healthier approach to eating. And there is good empirical evidence to support this view (see The Junk Food Commission). It is certainly true that a diet consisting primarily of 'lunch boxes from hell' and 'tooth rot' fizzy drinks will have adverse health consequences – as will, most certainly, a diet of foie gras, prosciutto and crème brulee. But beyond recommending 'Captain Organic' dried fruit the Food Commission's jury has little to offer in the way of practical advice that is likely to lead to any significant change in the dietary behaviour of children.
Peter Marsh, 16 July 2002