Thomas Sutcliffe: Cut-price food deals fuelling the obesity epidemic

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The Independent Online

I doubt that anyone was under the impression that what really gets the big food retailers out of bed in the morning is a driving ambition to improve the health of the nation. But, should anybody have been taken in by the various advertising campaigns there have been about supermarkets' new concern for our nutritional well-being, the latest report from the National Consumer Council offers a bit of timely perspective.

The fourth of a series of reports rating the top eight supermarkets on their approach to nutritional health, it found that in-store promotions and cut-price deals had increased by 83 per cent since 2005 and that those deals were over-whelmingly aimed at foods high in fat and sugar. Never mind the credit crunch, the message seemed to be, what about a bit of comfort eating? Only 12 per cent of price promotions monitored featured fruit and vegetables – as against the Food Standards Agency's target level of a third.

It wasn't all bad news. Some supermarkets, notably Sainsbury's, the Co-op and Marks and Spencer were commended for good progress in food labelling and even the worst offenders, Tesco, Somerfield and Morrisons, were making some improvements, albeit slowly. But that didn't weigh heavily against what looked like a stampede towards junk in the loss-leaders that actually get customers through the doors. The supermarkets, predictably, contested the report and insisted that they were doing far better than had been described.

But I did find myself wondering why we should expect supermarket managements to be any good at all at a programme of public health education. They are retailers after all – not lifestyle gurus – and if legislation allows them to make a greater profit by selling fatty, salty and sugary foods to their customers – rather than carrot-sticks and apples – than that is likely to be what they will do – particularly when money starts to get tight and competition even tighter. We might hope that they would actually match up to the grandiose statements about social responsibility they make on their websites, but, if blame is to be handed out in this context, it should go in at least two other directions as well.

One big chunk should go to us – the people passing through those tills and loading up with the two-for-one pork pies and the Halloween packs of chocolate bars. And the other big chunk should go to the Government, which has naively accepted the industry's claims that voluntary measures are the best way of proceeding, when it should have been clear from the beginning that the volition is pretty weak. The Government (and all taxpayers by extension) have a very strong motive for improving the British diet. It will cost them (and us) much less in terms of health care. But it is likely to cost supermarkets and food manufacturers more to deliver that fiscal and social saving. And at present the price of foot-dragging is only a disappointed head shake from the FSA and a bit of bad press.

The FSA report ends with recommendations to retailers. A government seriously concerned with the health of its citizens should make at least some of them legal requirements.

Marr's day: a big bang or a whimper?

It is gratifying to see Radio 4 going all out for Big Bang Day which, for those of you indifferent to particle physics, takes place a week tomorrow – when the Large Hadron Collider, left, will be switched on at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. Andy Marr will report live from the control room for the Today programme, and there will be documentaries about the "most complicated scientific apparatus ever built".

Given the scale of the particle acceleration experiment and its potential implications for our knowledge of the universe, this does not strike me as an over-reaction. It is nice, too, that an abstruse and media-resistant subject can attract the sort of attention the Olympics or the Oscars take for granted. But I do worry a little about anti-climax on the day.

I hope they make clear that it is not going to be a case of pressing the big button marked "On" and reading off the result. It's a pity that radio was not around when paradigm-busting experiments were a bit more straightforward: "We're live here at the Tower of Pisa, where Galileo is about to release two cannon balls of different weights. Well! Who'd have thought it! They've hit the ground together! The Aristotelians are not going to be happy about this."

An ill wind that blows no politician any good

Hurricane Gustav arrives attended by a swirl of "ill-wind" theories. One senior Democrat has had to apologise for suggesting that it proves God is on the Democrats' side – since the storm was perfectly scheduled to disrupt the opening of the Republican convention.

Outraged Republican bloggers retort that they would never be so calculating as to say such a vile thing, while simultaneously speculating there might be an upside in having Bush and Cheney blown off the top of the convention agenda (is it too cynical to note that they came loose suspiciously quickly? I suspect someone went round sabotaging the guy ropes).

Other commentators are talking about the chance Gustav offers McCain to look presidential and patriotic enough to suspend partisan politics for the greater good – apparently more concerned with electoral meterology than the fact Gustav has killed scores of people and forced the mass evacuation of a major US city. I fear this "what's in it for us" approach to large scale catastrophe is infectious.

Reading the news coverage, I notice that Cuba's tobacco crop has been wiped out and briefly find myself wondering how this might play out in terms of reduced cancer deaths, temporarily forgetting that – whatever you think of tobacco – the livelihoods of a lot of very poor people depend on it. Sometimes, it is safest to ignore the silver lining and just concentrate on the cloud.

* A You Gov/TUC report has found that one in four employees are "unhappy with their job", while a third claimed they didn't enjoy it, a finding the TUC has cited as a wake-up call for British employers. I'm sure there is much to do be done in making the workplace a location towards which people skip with a gladsome heart – and I don't want to underestimate how grimly the toad work can squat on some people's lives. But if this report had been publicised under the headline "Three in four employees happy at work" or "Two-thirds of workers enjoy their jobs" would we have been appalled at how low the numbers were or would we have been surprised that job satisfaction (or job tolerance) was as high as it seems to be?