Dieters pay as calorie counting is privatised

Charles Arthur on outrage at new charges for nutritional data
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The Independent Online
HOW much are you prepared to pay to find out how many calories there are in a potato?

The Government has privatised the data, derived at taxpayers' expense over decades, about the nutritional value of thousands of foods, with the result that it is virtually impossible to find a cheap computer program which would let you work out an effective diet.

This is because software companies have to pay swingeing fees to the Royal Society of Chemistry, which in 1994 was given exclusive rights by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) to exploit the data.

Yet only a month ago, a report from the National Audit Office criticised the Government's lack of action against the growing problem of obesity, and specifically called for more "accurate and usable" data about foods to be made available.

"It's patently absurd," said Andrew Comley, who with his wife Beverley runs a software company called Comcard in Droitwich. "Everybody assumed this information was in the public domain. Yet the RSC claims an absolute copyright - even on data provided by Kellogg's about its cereals which the RSC then puts into the database."

In 1993 the Comleys began marketing a low-cost program called Compute- a-Diet containing the data - which was then provided by the Government - for hand-held computers. They sold several hundred copies. Given that their program cost pounds 80, while rivals were around pounds 600, it was not surprising.

But after the RSC was granted the rights, it told the Comleys that a royalty would be payable on each copy of the program sold. They were horrified to find they would be charged pounds 40 per copy on the first 25 copies sold, with a sliding scale reducing to pounds 5 each if sales reached 500 copies in a year - but that the count would be set back to zero every January.

Mr Comley challenges the concept that information which was originally derived with tax revenues is now being used to enrich a private organisation. "In the US, software developers can buy a particular release of the food database from the US Department of Agriculture for about $200 (pounds 133) and as long as their program isn't just a straight copy, but adds something to the usability of the data, there's no royalty."

However, the US database would be useless in the UK because it calculates nutrition by a different system, and only mentions US brands of food - many not available here.

The RSC and Maff both refused to discuss their arrangement, saying that it is commercially confidential. But Mike Corkill, who looks after the database for the RSC, maintains that the royalty is reasonable.

"The fees that we ask are equivalent to the printed book price," he said. Royalty income presently "just about" matches costs, he said. But Mr Comley riposted that the production process for the electronic form of the data - which takes up about 5 megabytes of storage - requires nothing more than copying it onto a few floppy discs, rather than printing a book.

Mr Corkill defended the level of the royalty, saying it was based on estimates of the market size for the data and the costs of making it available. "Analysing a food for all its nutrients can cost pounds 1,000," he said. "And there are 3,500 foods for which we have the collected data."

However, Maff is believed to be unhappy about the details of the deal. In a letter seen by the Independent on Sunday, the food minister Tony Baldry says that his officials are "currently discussing the future arrangements" and emphasises that the data was produced by Maff "at public expense" and should be available "in a form which meets the needs of potential users and which offers the best value for money".