Amy Jenkins: Now more than ever we need proper junk food regulation

Public health
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The Independent Online

This week it became clear that the new Government won't be regulating the junk food industry. Snacks such as crisps and biscuits, plus convenience foods such as pasties and pizzas, could all be made with less fat, salt and sugar.

They could easily be rendered less lethal to the nation's health and they could easily be better labelled. The mega-calorific frappuccino-style drinks sold in every high street's coffee franchises, for example, could have a calorie count next to their alluring names on the board. This won't be happening, of course, since that would cost rich corporations money they don't want to spend. It would also make the products less attractive. Instead, the people whose health is suffering from consuming this stuff (mostly poor and underprivileged people) are to be asked to take more "responsibility" for what they eat.

On top of struggling to survive in a recession-hit economy and facing cuts in their essential public services and benefits, these people now have to go online and educate themselves via a tedious (although cheerfully colourful) website called Change4Life. The Change4Life campaign, started by Labour, is now, under the coalition Government, to be funded by the very people who manufacture the food we're not supposed to eat. This is meant to make sense because junk food manufacturers apparently don't regard a healthier lifestyle for the nation as "remotely inconsistent with their long-term interests".

I don't believe that for a second, but what on earth does Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, think the double-speak he reports means? Perhaps it means that the junk food people don't actually want to kill us because then they'd be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. No, they want us to eat just enough to keep them rich, but not so much that we don't live on into old age where they hope we will be consuming their junk as greedily as ever as we totter about on our Zimmer frames.

Moderation is the key, apparently. Lansley said: "It's perfectly possible to eat a bag of crisps, to eat a Mars bar, to drink a carbonated soft drink, but do it in moderation." Well, it's perfectly possible to do heroin in moderation. Not a lot of people know that, but it's true. If you're not an addict by nature, if you're happy and well adjusted and your life isn't particularly stressful, you could do quite a bit of heroin and not get addicted. Of course, a needle full of heroin is quite different from a can of Coke, but consider this. There is a drip, drip, drip every-day poisoning that comes to us from junk food. David Kessler, the former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner who exposed the tobacco industry, has written an exposé of the fast food industry showing how high fructose corn syrup and other additives that make food hyper-palatable are clinically addictive.

Food manufacturers even use this moreish-ness to advertise their foods. Until recently Pringles used the slogan: Once you pop, you can't stop. And sadly it isn't just ad-speak. There's clinical evidence to prove the slogan's truth. High-fat foods are the foods that evolution has programmed us to favour – once upon a time, they were hard to come by. As it's likely to take evolution another couple of millennia to work out these foods are killing us now they're on every street corner, we really need a government with the balls to legislate.

A shame, then, that "public health" Lansley, as he likes to be called, has rolled over on his back in front of the food lobby. His excuse? The same old Tory nonsense about the nanny state. Was it nannyish of governments to legislate so that children didn't have to inhale our cigarette smoke in cinemas and trains? And then, in the same breath as he talks about not lecturing, Lansley covers his back by asking the junk food manufacturers to fund the ineffectual Change4Life, which is all about telling people what they should and shouldn't eat.

He said: "We want to free business from the burden of regulation but we don't want, in doing that, to sacrifice public health outcomes." He may as well have said: we want to have our salty, sugary, fatty cake, but we don't want, in doing that, to eat it.