Who pays for the obesity crisis …..?

‘The real cost of poor quality food should include the cost to the NHS in diet related illness, but of course the food industry do not pay the true cost for this, this is disproportionately displaced onto the individual consumer via the taxes we pay to fund our health care system….’

As Channel 4 ,  Dispatches , highlights Theresa May’s watering down of governments obesity strategy it is time to reframe the discourse on ‘obesity’.

Regulating the food industry is about more than people being ‘fat’, it is about the role an active state should play in society and the fallacy of ‘choice’ as a panacea .

The current discussion on the food industry must not be overshadowed by the ‘obesity’ debate because there are much bigger issues at stake here, not least the accountability of the food industry and the role government should have, if any,  in regulating the food industry to protect the health of the nation.  By narrowing the focus on obesity we risk  reducing the debate to stigmatizing those who are overweight, and focus too much on individual responsibility.  For once could  the debate also include corporate responsibility.  Whilst Politicians might make noises about supporting free ‘choice’ I would rather see decisive action from government because I trust the food industry about as much as I trust the banking industry, which is zero percent.

Just look at the food labelling debacle, which dragged on for over two decades  The coalition government announced in October 2012 that a consistent system of food  labelling  was set to be launched, however, it was not quite a done deal with food producers still holding back.   Cadbury, amongst others, spurned the ‘traffic light’ system suggesting it focused too much on the negative ingredients in their food, i.e. sugar.….REALLY!

But it is not just about food labelling, more importantly it is also about the food production process. For example research suggests high salt intake is associated with significantly increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, so to reduce risk just reduce salt in take, easy.  However, the same research also suggests high levels of salt intake is related to food production processes, rather than individuals adding salt to their diet, and the biggest barrier to reducing significant salt intake for individuals  is the historical reluctance of the food industry to reduce the levels of salt used in food production.

The seriousness of this issue must not get lost in tabloid headlines about ‘obese’ people.  Any talk of government taking an interventionist approach is met with cries of ‘nanny state’ from the Tory right who use this as a pejorative term to describe excessive state action.  Those who support free markets object to the use of state power in this way perceiving such an approach as restricting individual choice.

Governments approach to this issue is ideological, whilst for some intervention from government represents the worst excesses of the ‘nanny state’, to others it represents an ‘active state’ coordinating an approach to promote public health for its citizens, rather than protecting big industry from taking responsibility for its actions.

A first step might be to regulate the removal of excessive sugar from food production, this would  benefit public health. We need such intervention because we can not trust the food industry, the average consumer can not fight against the unethical and unhealthy practices of large corporations. I feel very strongly the government should undertake a strategy akin to tackling the tobacco industry, because the potential damage to our health from sugar added to our food parallels that of nicotine.

A rise in the cost of food is an interesting argument presented by government and the food industry as an argument against healthier food production. The real cost of poor quality food should include the cost to the NHS in diet related illness, but of course the food industry do not pay the true cost for this, this is disproportionately displaced onto the individual consumer via the taxes we pay to fund our health care system (Do not even get me started on corporate tax evasion).

All most of us want is honesty and transparency, and maybe even an ethical approach in the food industry,  where our health is put before profit, is that too much to ask?

It would seem it is.

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