Joan Smith: It worked for smoking - now let's try the same with food

Manufacturers are like pushers, encouraging bad habits
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The Independent Online

I'm a bit mystified by all this debate about health labels. On one side are leading food manufacturers, who grudgingly announced last week that in the spring they will begin placing labels on the front of products such as crisps and processed cheese telling shoppers how much saturated fat, sugar and salt they contain. On the other are consumer groups and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who want a colour-coded scheme that distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy foods.

No rational person, a category from which I exclude all those idiots whose reflex action is to cry "nanny state" every time government ministers come up with even a modest idea to stop us eating, smoking and drinking ourselves to death, could disagree - except to say that the FSA's proposal isn't radical enough.

Last week, I came face to face with one of the victims of this country's obesity epidemic. I had just been listening to a report on Radio 4 about the problem in the US, where so many people are obese that half the population of the Bronx is suffering from weight-related diabetes. So when I saw a middle-aged man waddling towards me, rolling from side to side as he struggled to cope with his extraordinary bulk, I had to stop myself running up to him and asking if he realised he was killing himself.

It's been obvious for ages that after centuries in which the chief food problem for humanity was scarcity, the position has reversed and in the affluent West we have failed to adapt to conditions of perpetual over-supply. By now, probably a majority of the British population has lost touch with traditional regulators such as hunger and appetite, consuming food to satisfy other cravings, such as affection or novelty, or simply because it is there.

The result is a lot of very sick people, whose quality of life isbeing drastically curtailed by an addiction as difficult to beat as drugs or alcohol. In that sense, the big food companies and supermarkets are akin to pushers, encouraging consumers' bad habits with barely a thought for the consequences. Now, under great pressure, the food industry is belatedly offering to tell us what's in the horrible, barely recognisable processed food that fills supermarket shelves, but it's resisting the FSA's preferred option of a traffic-light system to signal "good" and "bad" foods.

Well, I'd like to propose a really frank scheme in which chicken trimmings disguised as dinosaurs to tempt children would carry labels admitting the product is of no nutritional value at all. In supermarkets certain aisles - the ones full of fizzy drinks, sugary snacks and ready-made meals to go in the microwave - would bear signs reading "complete rubbish" and "absolutely dire for your health". Except in emergencies, I've given up shopping in the supermarket nearest my house, which sells crisps and sweets in industrial quantities but barely seems to know what herbs and vegetables look like. I'd like to see the food industry targeted in the same way as cigarette manufacturers, forced to carry labels admitting what their products do to people's health. For years, cigarette packets have carried warnings that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease, so why not make food companies set out the effects of eating too much saturated fat, salt and sugar?

A generation of obese children is growing up with terrible eating habits, to a point where it is predicted that they will die at a younger age than their parents. They aren't going to be affected by messages in small type about calories and recommended daily amounts. Shock tactics have worked on smokers and it's time consumers were confronted with the stark fact that obesity kills.