Food firms given deadline to show healthiest options

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Indy Politics

Food companies are to be given 18 months to introduce a "traffic lights" system of labelling to help families identify healthy eating options or face legislation. Today, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, and Tony Blair will announce a timetable to implement the White Paper on public health, which includes the plan for clearer food-labelling, a ban on smoking in most pubs, and curbs on junk food advertising on television.

Food companies are to be given 18 months to introduce a "traffic lights" system of labelling to help families identify healthy eating options or face legislation. Today, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, and Tony Blair will announce a timetable to implement the White Paper on public health, which includes the plan for clearer food-labelling, a ban on smoking in most pubs, and curbs on junk food advertising on television.

Labour strategists are planning to use the threat of action against the food industry to highlight differences with the Tories over public health. One senior Labour source last night said: "The Tories have bowed to the food lobby. With the Tories you are on your own. We are going to show we are on the side of the consumer."

Labour and the Tories traded blows over the health service yesterday as the pre-election skirmishing turned into a full-scale battle over the NHS. Mr Reid accused the Conservative leader, Michael Howard of "hiding behind human shields", a reference to the case raised by Mr Howard of the pensioner Margaret Dixon, who said she had a shoulder operation put off seven times.

The Health Secretary claimed the Tory plan to provide £1.2bn in subsidy from the taxpayer to pay for half of the cost of an operation for patients to go private was illegal and in breach of the 1948 NHS Act. In the most vitriolic terms used so far, Mr Reid told Mr Howard: "Stop using human shields to hide behind. Have the guts to come out into the open and debate your indefensible policy. You won't, you daren't, because you know this policy of cuts and charges is unfair, immoral and contrary to every principle on which the NHS was formed."

Mr Blair also sounded irritated with the coverage of Mrs Dixon's case, telling journalists: "You have got to decide as the media what you want to do; if you want to run a bad NHS story every day between now and the general election you can do. There will be people who don't get proper treatment; that is the case in every health care system in the world. But there is one fundamental question: is the NHS better significantly than it was eight years ago? I have no doubt the answer is yes."

The Prime Minister and Mr Reid visited a hospital yesterday to publicise their health plans but found it was among the NHS hospitals, which include the Great Ormond Street hospital, which are being forced to close wards to save money before the end of the financial year. Mr Reid insisted it was part of the normal budgeting process and said the number of operations was higher, despite the temporary closures.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health spokesman, denied the Tory plan was illegal. He also challenged Mr Reid to confirm the report in The Independent yesterday that prescription charges are to be increased to £6.50 per item from 1 April.

Mr Howard accused the Government of presiding over an "epidemic" in sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia. He said the Tories would launch an advertising campaign to warn young people against binge-drinking, drug-taking and unprotected sex.

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