Tuesday 15 October 2019

Dame Sally and plain packaging for food

Former Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies treated us to her mad parting shot last week with a report on childhood obesity. Most of the media coverage focused on the idea of banning eating and drinking on public transport (because it normalises snacking or something), but that was only one of a number of lunatic proposals.

Also included was...

Accelerate the [food] reformulation programme (PHE), If sufficient progress is not made, the government should apply either:

a. A fiscal lever or

b. Standardised packaging, (as for tobacco).

This is not the first time we have seen calls for plain packaging to be extended to food. In addition to several studies pushing the idea, the IPPR think tank wants plain packaging for all sweets, crisps and sugary drinks (as 'a challenge to the power of corporate manufacturers').

The idea also surfaced two weeks ago when the Food Ethics Council held an event called 'Food policy on trial: in the dock - plain packaging' in which four people debated whether to put 'unhealthy' food in 'standardised' packaging.

Whoever was on the 'jury' had a penchant for state intervention because they concluded that...

  • Much stronger regulation is needed on packaging and on food and drink claims, both in what is allowed and how strictly that is enforced. ‘Fake farms’ and cartoon animations shown on pack to market unhealthy products to children were two examples of where the jury agreed that bans were needed.
  • The jury called for honesty to become a central tenet of any food strategy. It proposed a citizens’ assembly [oh, God - CJS] to decide on which claims about food and drink should and should not be allowed, on packaging and more broadly. It also recommended incorporating that into the National Food Strategy (England) process.
  • There are problems with the idea of introducing plain packaging on worst-offending food and drink categories, not least setting boundaries about what should and should not be included. However, the threat of such a radical idea opens up the space for other interventions to be brought in.

The mere fact that plain packaging hasn't had any measurable impact on anything when tried on tobacco hasn't held this bandwagon back one inch. As I said of plain packaging when it was first mooted in the UK, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Amusingly, one of the people speaking in favour of plain packaging for 'junk food' at the Food Ethics Council debate was Ben Pugh of Farmdrop. You may recall Farmdrop as the company that got caught out advertising cheese, jam and other everyday groceries that are classified as High in Fat, Sugar or Salt under the government's puritanical definition. It's great to see that his faith in Big Government hasn't been shaken!

By the way, did you see the cover of Sally Davies' report? It tells you a lot about how little grasp she (or whoever writes her nonsense) has of the evidence. The implication is that childhood obesity has risen because food has got bigger. It suggests that a bag of crisps weighed 100g in 1990 and weighs 150g today. The average pack of crisps actually weighs 25g today and weighed 30-35g in 1990. Sally Davies is comparing a modern multi-pack of crisps with, er, something.

The graph also shows childhood 'obesity' rising between 2006 and 2018, which it didn't, and the x-axis is totally mental, going up in increments of 16 years, 4 years, 5 years, and then 3 years.

Apart from that, rigorous stuff! Dame Sally was worth her £205,000 a year, wasn't she?.

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