Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Shopping basket cases

The latest gormless idea from 'public health' appeared in the newspapers over the weekend.

The plan is to take the red, amber and green ‘traffic-lights’ system commonly used on food packaging one step further and grade the full contents of a basket or trolley for calories, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt, then print the results on the receipt. 

By the time it had reached the Guardian, this ruse had been expanded to include financial incentives and subsidies...

“What would be really interesting is if the retailers link it to algorithms set up for loyalty cards for those who want it,” says Taylor. “So, if a till receipt shows lots of reds, you might get vouchers to buy more veg"

'Buy junk food, get free veg' is an incentive to buy junk food, of course, but the workability of the plan doesn't seem have crossed the minds of the something-must-be-done crowd.

I gave a quote to the Mail on Sunday, most of which was published. In full, I said...
This is a hectoring and highly bureaucratic proposal which has the potential to alarm people unnecessarily. The amount of fat and sugar in a shopping trolley is largely irrelevant unless we know how the ingredients are combined and how big the portions are. The idea is almost certainly unworkable in practice, but even in theory it would be crude, inaccurate and unhelpful.

It is worrying how little thought has gone into this proposal (which was devised by someone in the advertising industry). I was initially opposed to traffic light labelling and I still think it is imperfect, but it can be useful in comparing direct substitutes at a glance, eg. two different brands of frozen lasagne. 

But it would be useless with whole shopping baskets. The practical problems are insurmountable. For example, how would the purchase of a couple of bottles of cooking oil, which is extremely dense in calories and fats, affect the healthfulness of the basket? How do you decide if a shopping basket is high in calories? By weight? By price? And how does the computer know how many people will be eating the food? It doesn't, of course. It can't.

It's a ridiculous idea, and it is telling how few people in 'public health' have stood up to describe it as such.

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