Tuesday 25 December 2018

Public Health England jumps the shark

It was around this time last year when Public Health England issued its weird advice to cap breakfast at 400 calories and to limit lunch and dinner to 600 calories.

I said at the time...

The idea of having 'limits' for individual meals is entirely new and I suspect that there is an agenda at work here. The 400-600-600 'rule' will allow PHE and its army of scolds to name and shame every restaurant portion, takeaway and ready meal that contains more than the government-approved quantity of calories. Individual meals will be portrayed as hazardous per se and will become targets for advertising bans, taxes and reformulation. A whole Pandora's Box is being quite deliberately opened.

Two weeks ago, an article in the BMJ got wide news coverage when it found that the vast majority of restaurant meals exceed PHE's miserable guidelines. This, too, was politically motivated. The authors noted that ‘policy levers that result in the food industry reducing the number of kilocalories being sold to consumers are needed’ and ‘measures are now needed to “renormalize” the food environment (for example, by downsizing food product portions)’.

The idea of the government controlling the number of calories in meals is so outlandish that few people have taken it seriously, despite PHE explicitly stating that this is what they are working on. They have been busy setting calorie limits for almost every food product available in shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. The plan was to publish them in the spring but Laura Donnelly at the Telegraph has got hold of them and has leaked them today.

They are astonishing, not only because they are so low but because they are so comically precise. Sandwiches and main meal salads will be capped at 550 calories, ready meals will be capped at 544 calories and main courses in restaurants will be capped at 951 calories. Vol-au-vents or onion bhajis will be capped at 134 calories and salad dressing capped at 145 calories. The spurious precision of these numbers is presumably meant to imply that they have been worked out scientifically. They haven't, of course (why is OK to have a 900 calorie lunch in a restaurant but not OK to have a 600 calorie microwave dinner?). There is no way of working out how much energy a single meal should contain. The concept is ludicrous.

But the detailed proposals have infuriated manufacturers - who say they are far too complex and confusing to be workable.

No kidding.

These are not legal limits. Not yet. The plan is for the bureaucrats at PHE to 'work with' the food industry to magically remove calories from their products without destroying flavour. PHE have no knowledge to bring to the table so their part in the 'partnership' amounts to setting targets, issuing threats and naming and shaming businesses.

Some of the companies will attempt to play along, mainly by reducing portion sizes, but it is a doomed enterprise. The government initially threatened to use 'other levers', such as advertising restrictions, 'if progress isn't made', but it has already capitulated to the 'public health' lobby on this, so the only thing left is to threaten them with more taxes and mandatory calorie limits. Make no mistake, the industry is being blackmailed.

If mandatory limit are introduced, it will mean an effective prohibition on many of Britain's best loved dishes. Steak and kidney pudding far exceeds the 951 calorie limit for out-of-home food, as does ham, egg and chips, the all day breakfast, fish and chips, and beer and ale pie (based on Wetherspoons' nutritional information). So does a normal Christmas dinner.

As for foreign cuisine, you can kiss goodbye to kebabs, curries, pizzas and Chinese food. But it's a treat, you say! Tough luck. No exceptions.

Public Health England has surely bitten off more than it can chew this time. Chefs, publicans, the food industry and the general public have to come together and tell PHE where to stick their ridiculous calorie caps.

I gave a comment to the Telegraph, saying:

'These demands are worthy of Nero or Caligula. The government needs to bring Public Health England to heel before they ruin the food supply. The calorie caps are arbitrary, unscientific and unrealistic. It is reasonable to offer advice on daily calorie consumption but setting limits on individual meals is insane.' 

Public Health England cannot be reformed. It should be shut down.

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