Serious Bollocks

Yesterday the Government ushered in the New Year with another splendid initiative. Four million recipe leaflets will be mailed to families already signed up to the government’s Change 4 Life public health campaign.

Change 4 Life, in case you’ve forgotten in the programme designed to persuade us to change our ways, eat better, exercise more and generally take better care of ourselves. It has been formulated in the face of stupefying increases in obesity and associated diseases. Let’s just remind ourselves of the scale of the problem. The latest Health Survey for England (HSE) data shows that in 2009, 61.3% of adults (aged 16 or over), and 28.3% of children (aged 2-10) in England were overweight or obese, of these, 23.0% of adults and 14.4% of children were obese. Obesity, as http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publichealth/Obesity/DH_078098 reminds us, can lead to coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some cancers and liver disease. Currently 4.5% of the population of the UK suffer from type-2 diabetes, and this is forecast to rise. The implications for the NHS and the taxpayer are incalculable.

The Change 4 Life is a nice idea. Its aims are laudable. Its goals are admirable if woolly. I knew shamefully little about it, and so I visited the web site to find out more. What I found something that seems lifted from a particularly bad kid’s primer of about 50 years ago, crude cartoon figures in primary colours against an searing yellow back ground. My picture can’t convey the horror of the original. It’s almost impossible to believe that whoever designed and approved this actually lives in the digital age.

But it got worse, far, far worse. Take a look at the week’s Supermeal Planner – Monday: pork & bean casserole; Tuesday: sausage & bean stew (I kid you not); Wednesday: tasty tuna and sweet corn pasta; Thursday: sweet potato pasta; Friday: fish pie; Saturday: sweet and sour chicken; Sunday: Sunday roast. Look, I know that these dishes are designed with a minimal budget in mind, but these are about as inspirational as a bowl of cold porridge. Their cause is not helped by the fact that, on my test, the wrong picture came up with the wrong dish heading and the photos themselves look like murky Polaroids found at the bottom of a shoebox. In other words, it’s crap.

But it got worse, far, far worse than that. There is a subsection of the Supermeals Zone called Supermarket Deals, where you’ll find tabs for Asda, Aldo and the Co-0p that are portals to online shopping at those supermarkets. And if you even more curious, and you go into the section called Partners & Supporters, and delve still further into the sub-section National Partners, you find Bernard Matthews, Danone, Dole, Mars, McCains,Spar, Tesco cheek by jowl with World Cancer Research Fund, Walk England, School Food Trust, Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation.

That’s interesting enough, but let’s back track slightly to a section called links. In Links, under section headed food, sub-section MT Supermarket – NHS Choices Health Checker tool (sic), which suggests you ‘Use the NHS Choices Health Checker tool on mysupermarket.co.uk to cut the sat fat, salt and sugar in your weekly shop. The health checker keeps track of your trolley and suggests healthy swaps based on your favourite items.’ , and you are invited to click on a link called http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk.

Which I did, and it took me into a website that had obviously been designed with a lot of money. It’s clean and wholesome and tempting. It’s divided between Groceries, Beauty and Wine, and allows you to go directly to the websites of Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Boots, Superdrug, Waitrose, Ocado, Virgin Wines and Majestic. Oh my goodness, how convenient is that?

I’ll click on Asda to see what they’re up to. And blow me, I get directly onto their online shop and there are loads of delights and dainties to catch my fancy. What’s it to be, then? Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, down from £1.80 a packet to £1,00? Or Dairylea Dunkers Bread Sticks? (£2.48 down to £1)? Or Mueller Crunch Corner Variety (£3.28 to £2.00)/ Or steak pie or Chicken Tikka Massala? Or a box of Maltesers or a packet of Walkers crisps? I’m not sure what any of these have to do with healthy eating, but blow me down, they look tempting. To be fair, there are also ‘healthier’ items listed too, but you take my point.

It’s the same with each of the stores listed. In other words, the Change 4 Life, both directly and indirectly, serves as a portal to, and therefore as a marketing arm of, major corporations. There is a tacit endorsement of what they sell and how they sell it, thus undermining the principles they’re supposed to be upholding. This seems at best bizarre, at worst cynical and corrupt.

This is not the first Government to have found easy accommodation with the supermarkets. Successive ministers have found it easier and more rewarding to guard the interests of large corporations than those of the electorate. Change 4 Life fits neatly into that pattern. You can’t blame the supermarkets. That’s what they do. You can no more expect them to put public interest before commercial interest that you can expect a great white shark to turn vegetarian, but some how I have higher expectations of our politicians.

Will Change for Life, in all its condescending amateurishness, change the way we live? We’ll die first.

This Government’s attempts to deal with the epidemic of public obesity and its consequences, reminds me of the speech the Reverend Sidney Smith made in 1813 in Taunton, on the subject of Catholic emancipation. ‘In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm [at Sidmouth], Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea-water, and vigorously pushing away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused; Mrs. Partington’s spirit was up. But I need not tell you that the contest was unequal; the Atlantic Ocean beat Mrs. Partington.’

The Government are behaving exactly like Dame Partington. In the end, of course, the Catholics won their emancipation, but I’m not sure many of us will live long enough to see such a happy outcome when it comes to the national diet.

About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
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19 Responses to Serious Bollocks

  1. janmccourt says:

    Incredible & yet not, when one considers the powers & effects of these huge behemoths. Interesting though, as you say, the supermarkets are doing their jobs, it is successive governments who are not.

  2. Sorry Matt…but couldn’t read past the menu…nothing to do with your writing but my blood was starting to bubble. My 13 year old had “cookery lessons” at school last term, give you an example, Spag Bol, nothing wrong with a family staple. Instructions to make it were, I kid not, “First, put a pan of water to boil the spaghetti…then peel and chop up the onion to make the sauce…” All sauce ingredients thrown in at the same time into a pan. Ta Da!

  3. But we knew this was going to happen: here is the relevant announcement from 7 July 2010 ij Lansleys speech to the UK Faculty of Public Health:

    “Change4Life is an example of this. I have been impressed how much it has achieved to date – I’ve talked to many of you about my support for it, particularly the way it has brought som many people together – healthcare professionals, teachers, charities, businesses, and the thousands of volunteers who have added their support.
    But, again, we need a new approach. We have to make Change4life less a government campaign, more a social movement. Less paid for by government, more backed by business. Less about costly advertising, more about supporting family and individual responses.
    There has been a change of Government and there will now be a change of approach. We will be progressively scaling back the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on Change4Life and asking others, including the charities ,the commercial sector and local authorities, to fill the gap.
    While government pump-primed the brand, we will now withdraw the primer and engage others to share in making Change4Life really work – and we will focus on extending its reach and effectiveness, especially in social media.
    There is no point backing local strategies if the government is prescriptive. Change4Life can be used by everybody to deliver their public health campaigns.
    To date, industry has made ‘in kind’ contributions. I will now be pressing them to provide actual funding behind the campaign. And they need to do more. If we are to reverse the trends in obesity, the commercial sector needs to change their business practices, including how they promote their brands and product reformulation.
    That is why I see our new approach as a partnership – access to the Change4life brand, alongside the Responsibility Deal; with an expectation of non-regulatory approaches. We will work with partners in Change4life to give people better information in less prescriptive ways.
    I will also consider extending the Change4Life partnership to the drinks industry, who also have a major further role to play in promoting healthier lifestyles. Change4life is not just about obesity and physical activity but other ways to be healthy.”

    At least he can’t be accused of dishonesty.

    But in the meantime subjects such as PSHE and cookery will be squeezed out of the curriculum in the pursuit of “more rigour” in education and the message about health and food will be lost to those children and young people who need it most.

  4. You’re spot on about successive governments’ craven attitude toward supermarkets. But the coalition is going further and indicated as much when giving major food manufacturers and retailers a say in public health policy just over a year ago.

    Then, early last year, we finally saw some of what that would mean. A new health statement on how much red meat you could eat healthily, that was a thinly disguised advert for some of the biggest names around.

    The detail is available here: http://thevoluptuousmanifesto.blogspot.com/2011/03/meaty-advice-thats-tough-to-chew.html

    So this is nothing new – all the while, heaping responsibility onto individuals at the same time as removing it from the multi-nationals and other big businesses that are a contributory factor to the problems.

  5. josephine says:

    This is most informative and depressing … oh dear. What can we do? You might be interested in reading Gareth Jones’s idea about blue collar gastronomy …
    http://www.garethjonesfood.com/blue-collar-gastronomy/

    Happy New Year anyway!

  6. Paul Perrin says:

    The bonfire of quangos never happened – Change4Life and Schools Food Trust should have been axed long ago.

  7. Ouch. Some pretty depressing reading. The worst thing? That I am not in the slightest bit surprised.

  8. Clodagh says:

    I’m not sure why successive Governments and local councils seem to think we need comic book drawings (that are both an insult to primary school children and to comics) to understand simple points. Point of reference Islington Council’s big, colourful and totally wasteful folded questionnaire to get feedback on how they dealt with a complaint (answer: they didn’t). Article I wrote on same form can be sent – haven’t yet had the courage to put it online on my blog. http://www.wordswithwings.co.uk/index.php/category/blog/ Thank you for your post, as Josephine says most informative if depressing.

  9. Sally says:

    After listening to the BBC R4 Food Programme on ‘the price of food’ and hearing the ‘market-regulated’ rubbish that has come from this government, I feel very gloomy indeed. The control of our food by big business is ruining our lives – not an overstatement. These corporates who make huge profits by peddling cheap food with high margins should pay the real price….not the tax-payer with money and health. Sorry ranty comment – but feel powerless and afraid….like a lot of people.

  10. sandy hellig says:

    Dear Matthew,
    Thoroughly enjoyed your rant (in a depressing way) and couldn’t agree more. Being an ex deli owner, I despise what the supermarkets are doing with a passion. They have bought the Government and most of our population. What the population do not understand that once they have us, they will remove choice, quality and special offers. It is not worth discussing what the Government do or don’t understand…….
    Sandy

  11. Alison SP says:

    Oh good, Matthew. As you said in your post about the Guardian it’s increasingly hard to find fluent, informative INTERESTING writing about food. So we look forward to more of your blog posts, like this one, about what really matters.

  12. Col Rich says:

    Bloody good journalism Mr Fort. You would have thought that with the equivilent of marketing backhanders going on like this,the beneficiaries would at least cough up for a decent website! The bigger issue is the NHS content is done by nutritionslist, not culinary professionals so what you get is the school meL effect. They meet the needs nutritionally, but you would not ever eat the meals suggested if you have anything remotely resembling taste. Glad to see your exit from the Guardian hasn’t hampered your style.

  13. Philipa says:

    Good post, and comments! Forgive me but what annoyed me whilst reading was that the menu ISN’T “designed with a minimal budget in mind”. OK they may have tried but clearly they have no clue. There is no mention of creative cooking with leftovers. No real cooking thought here. No planning. Just different ingredients every day. That’s expensive. For example you started with “Monday: pork & bean casserole”. Poor people don’t do that, not if they have any experience or education in how to cook. You START with the sunday roast so here it has to be a joint of pork in order to make a pork and bean casserole on monday. Unless you have a very good special offer cheap chicken or turkey is more cost effective as it gives a bigger range of leftovers the next day(s) as IMHO it tastes better second time around than pork – you can boil the carcass to make chicken soup. I prefer a Gammon joint to pork – if you put leftovers in a bag and freeze then you can make chicken and ham pie which is lovely. So yes, I agree that taste and variety is important and they have pork and beans followed by pork and beans then pasta followed by pasta? The trick is to use all the ingredients you buy in a variety of dishes, not have essentially the same dishes with different ingredients and chuck the leftovers away? Bizzarre.

    I think they woud have done better re-introducing cooking in schools. But they haven’t. They teach… what is it… food management, Culinary Technology? Some bollocks. They learn health and safety regulations and commerical (not household) marketing I think. I don’t think they learn the 3-in1 method and how to roast then boil a chicken carcass to make soup.

    Has the Govt launched an initiative to facilitate communication and sale of farm surplus to the poor? What happens to the bendy carrots? And how many school leavers would know how to cook with them without instructions on a packet, if they can read?

    “Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, down from £1.80 a packet to £1,00?” – let them eat cake I think is the message from this government.

  14. Philipa says:

    Incidentally you may find a Chris Hedges interview insteresting, even if you only listen to the first 7 mins – http://christopherhitchenswatch.blogspot.com/2012/01/antihitch-chris-hedges-tells-it-like-it.html

  15. Evie says:

    This makes for thoroughly depressing reading. They really do think we are too stupid to notice what’s actually going on here, don’t they.

  16. notfrangible says:

    Hear, hear, everyone, and thank you, Matt. Appalling on so many levels … design, content, cynicism. It reminds me of Family Circle recipes c1973…. just crumble a packet of nutritious salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps on top of the tuna for a gourmet touch.

  17. Brid Carter says:

    Hit the nail on the head with this article Matthew. And it is no different across the Irish sea here in Ireland, where the supermarkets seem to have even more control over our food, which for a country which produces a lot of agricultural produce, is really bad – handing control over both the production cycle, and the consumption cycle! It is something that really deeply concerns me to the extent that three years ago I decided to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and started a Saturday farmers market in an Industrial Estate in north Dublin city. It is bloody hard work, and it is two steps forward and one back most of the time, but at least people are being offered food directly from the producer, and can connect in a real way with farming and artisan foods.

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