Yvonne Roberts: Is the food industry getting away with murder?

Food manufacturers' profits are being clobbered by law suits. Fat has become a litigant's issue
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The Independent Online

Kraft, the world's second-largest food manufacturer, thinks it knows which side its bread is buttered. It has announced that it will overhaul its products to make them less unhealthy. It is to cut back on fat and sugar and reduce the size of portions in the hope that customers who have been turning their back on items such as DairyLea slices, Toblerone and Bird's instant desserts will return to swallowing Kraft's lines.

Kraft, the world's second-largest food manufacturer, thinks it knows which side its bread is buttered. It has announced that it will overhaul its products to make them less unhealthy. It is to cut back on fat and sugar and reduce the size of portions in the hope that customers who have been turning their back on items such as DairyLea slices, Toblerone and Bird's instant desserts will return to swallowing Kraft's lines.

The company and other manufacturers, including McDonald's, are finally listening because money talks. Their profits are being clobbered by the growing number of law suits brought by consumers with diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancers linked to obesity. Fat has become a litigant's issue.

While half the world is starving (and that includes the matriarchs of Manhattan who sip instead of chew), the rest appears to be ballooning into Billy Bunters (and that includes parts of Africa where the impoverished fat are beginning to emerge among the emaciated thousands). Three hundred million adults are obese, a 50 per cent increase in seven years. In Britain, one in five men is obese.

Most of these grown ups would have spent their childhood at a reasonable weight. What's alarming today is the number of children who are vastly overweight. Worldwide, 22 million children are obese - which may lead to diabetes, blindness, impaired relationships, premature death - and poor job opportunities, since fatism is creating a rapidly expanding colony of social lepers, outcast because of size.

When Kraft reduces its portions, many will simply double the quantity - since the issue is not appetite, but hunger of a particular kind. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman argues that the economy is powered not by a desire to acquire, but by how individuals feel after they have acquired. It's a hole that needs constant filling, and if emotional satisfaction can't be found, then stuffing yourself will have to do.

Human frailty combined with the power of the food industry means that eating has become the drug of choice for millions. Especially so when the seduction is so intense. Advertisements flogging everything from brown sauce-flavoured crisps to reconstituted turkey balls promise all the qualities that the individual believes he or she lacks: allure, affection, respect, love. All we have to do is eat. Ironically, some ads even exploit consumer knowledge. So, like Lazarus, the sales of Pot Noodle, sold as "the slag" of fast food, have risen from the grave.

We eat for comfort in an insecure era. Then we devour a couple of "calorie-reduced" meals to "lose" weight, boosting the multi-million pound dieting industry, which, paradoxically, keeps the country plump. For others, fat isn't even seen as a problem, it's the solution to not having to compete in a world where everyone appears more beautiful, more successful, more popular. This is especially so for the poor living in an affluent society .

Much talk, for instance, is heard about the experiential market. People don't want to buy the latest car any more, they want to "live" and explore, say, the Zambezi river. Those without the dosh are left to cruise supermarket aisles, instead, devouring mock-international mucked-up food and asking for the Rennies as they watch 24-hour global gastro-porn. Food has become the new religion.

In Round About A Pound A Week, Maud Pember Reeves's classic account of working lives before the First World War, she describes dinner for the family of a labourer: "Four pork chops, 'he' has one, other three divided among seven children, with potatoes. She (his wife) has an egg later." In the West, at least, the poor are no longer on such hard rations, but many still go without while those who don't have a diet that is as potentially toxic and as lacking in nutrients as the Edwardian diet. We call it progress.

Two decades ago, pioneers such as the nutritionist Caroline Walker, who sadly died young, and Professor Philip James, who chairs the international Obesity Task Force, warned of the dangers in our diet and were marginalised. Additives, colourings and the "hidden" sugar in products such as ketchup have contributed to a generation of whom too many are on Ritalin, for hyperactivity - triggered at least partly by the junk they consume.

It's a mad world, and the making of money is at its heart. Tibor Scitovsky is the author of The Joyless Economy, in which he argues that many Western societies no longer encourage their citizens to draw pleasure from life - instead, they rely on bought comforts such as the latest DVD, which provide only fleeting happiness. The French and Spanish, in contrast, continue to value rituals that provide a more permanent source of enjoyment - much of it around the buying, preparation and eating of food with others. In the UK, instead, we snack and graze, often on the street, as a solitary occupation. That's the way the food chains like it and they are the true rulers of the world. Safeway, as part of Wal-Mart, is big in South Korea, and likewise Tesco in Taiwan.

The food industry gets away with metaphorical murder. In the UK, its a wild Bengal tiger facing, in the regulatory Food Standards Agency, a novice animal-tamer without a whip. In 1996, the industry had to admit it was wrong all along; "Mad Cow Disease" could be transmitted to humans. For years it has sought to get round labelling requirements. In 2001 it was mildly chastised for describing as "pure" and "fresh" products about as untouched as a lady of the night. So we have farmed salmon that "swim" in their own excreta; chickens stuffed full of hormones; genetically modified ingredients and irradiated cheeses - all consumed in vast quantities. The paranoid might suspect the food industry of injecting a hormone that, once digested, instantly restores hunger.

This year, for the second time in a decade, the sugar lobby heavily lobbied the US Congress, demanding that it end its funding of the World Health Organisation (£260m this year). Its crime? It dared to express a desire to produce a report, agreed by 30 independent international experts, that sugar should make up only 10 per cent of a daily diet. The sugar lobby and the soft drinks community reckons 25 per cent is better - but for whom?

Professor James is a veteran of such battles. He tried to persuade the Thatcher government to reduce salt, fat and sugar quantities, without much success. Now, at last, the so called "compensation culture", so frequently criticised, may yet prove to be the engine of change in the food industry. Kraft has also said that it will stop pouring its propaganda into schools. It will require very much more, however, before we are satisfied.

Organic produce may or may not be better for you - but at least, in the main, you know what you are getting. Yet, for all the lack of investment, demand is outstripping supply by 200 per cent. Invest in that sector; cancel the debt to the Third World and tackle corruption there; invest wisely so it can have something on its plate all year, every year; insist on far tougher regulations for the food industry and more transparency; improve school meals; recognise the power of the consumer boycott; raise the benefits of the poor and provide the entire world with tickets to some other planet where the gods of profit and perfection have been overthrown, and eating in the present distorted manner no longer leaves a bad taste, ruining so many lives.

yroberts@dial.pipex.com

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