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Pete York On Ads

The truth about 'healthy' ready meals is coming home to roost

There was a woman creating in the Sidcup Tesco's the other day. She was haranguing the checkout girl about cruelty to chickens, as seen the night before on Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 exposé of battery farming. There's been a positive chicken fortnight on C4, starring the Jamie/Hugh/Gordon supergroup, big lads all, acting like pop stars and actors together, only more so.

But it's been grim viewing all the same because the life of factory-farmed birds is grim. I thought everyone knew that by now and had chosen to deny it because cheap chicken is a godsend for a family on a tight budget. But apparently not; if this woman was typical, people were shocked and wanted to do something.

The big supermarkets – all of them, because industrialised chicken farming is universal, not a Tesco innovation – will have assumed till recently that most of their customers can't afford full-on ethical eating, but that the Worried Well-off could be reassured and bought off with smart ranges of high-priced organic, free-range everything. But they may just have got it wrong.

On Channel 4 again, Jane Moore (a good choice as presenter because she's got that red-top touch) has been fronting a programme about the newest food deception – in the labelling of those rather smart supermarket ready meals that promise the earth. You know the sort of thing; the range name will be something very Because-You're-Worth-It, such as "Treat Yourself Healthy", and the recipe will incorporate Known Value Items – prawns, wild mushrooms, etc – in a smart-sounding, gastro-pubbish recipe, all with the promise of safe indulgence because it's well-balanced, healthy stuff that won't big you up. The calories, fat content, proportion of daily requirements and so on, are all shown on the front of the attractive packet in big clear graphics. It's reassuring because it looks like absolute science. But, according to Moore's researchers and analysts, they can practically make up the nutritional information as they go along. The fat and salt content can be miles higher than they say – the regulations concerning animal feed are apparently tighter than those for products for human consumption – and there aren't enough food safety scientists to go round.

The New Healthy Living range from Tesco sounds nice in the commercial, talked up by Jane Horrocks' rural Lancashire voiceover ("nor-tay", "hunn-ay", etc – do they all really talk like that?). The recipes are called gentrified things like Chilli Prawn Tagliatelle or Thai Spiced Chicken with Mangetout, and the big idea is that they've produced "balanced dishes you could eat every day". You can't just go on eating special fried rice and chilli con carne, says Jane. But the great demotic coup in this commercial is that of course you can – because there's CCC at the end, rendered smart healthy and unfattening by the Tesco touch: "healthier versions of your everyday favourites".

But I've seen the other Jane deconstructing this kind of offer. (I have to say I can't remember whether she fingered Tesco in the programme, although the saintly Waitrose was definitely mentioned.)

There's something happening and it's spreading way wider than the Worried Well-off. From out of my personal left field, all this food scandal coverage reminds me of that emotive pre-war marching song about the terribly fat man with the car, the yacht and the aeroplane, who watered the workers' beer.