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If oil’s the next tobacco, watch out Big Food and Big Booze

June 17, 2010

General Mills, the food giant that owns Cheerios, Häagen Daz and Green Giant, is breathing a sigh of relief after it suppressed a press release suggesting the US government was about to mount a full-scale investigation into its supply chain. The release was a hoax, but General Mills has no room for complacency. The threat of political interference in the food business could be very real if we extrapolate what the government has been doing to BP.

I owe the originality of this insight to the Financial Times’ John Gapper. Gapper’s argument, laid out in a column this week, is as follows. “Slick Willy” Sutton, the infamous armed robber, once observed that he raided banks because – that’s where the money is. In the same manner, US politicians – aware that they have to address a yawning budget deficit if they are to be re-elected – are casting around for easy money to plug the gap. Voters, impoverished by Wall Street’s scandalous behavioiur, don’t have it. But dividend-rich companies, like BP, do.

BP, of course, had it coming to it. Its behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico can be described as neither caring nor competent. That, however, is not the point. It is the ease with which Congress and Obama have been able to extract $20bn – none of which is ever likely to be returned to the company – that should be worrying shareholders everywhere. There is no fixed liability associated with this sum and – like blackmailers the world over – politicians will come back for more if they think they can get away with it.

To Gapper, the BP concession has echoes of the 1998 tobacco settlement, in which the industry paid $246bn to various states following legal action by their attorney generals. It’s worth quoting him more fully here: “Only 5% of tha money was spent on tobacco-related initiatives with Virginia, for example, investing in higher education, fibre optic cables and research into energy.”

Now let me see, which other big-dividend paying companies could land themselves in a pickle with the state over litigation liability? Gapper thinks the list is comprehensive and cites energy providers, drugs companies and consumer goods companies. I think two on his list stand out particularly prominently: the food and alcoholic drinks companies.

Imagine, for example, what might happen if scientific evidence conclusively proved that many of the big food companies had been slowly poisoning us to death through the use of (now largely discontinued) hydrogenated fats? Or what about excessive sugar and salt in cereals directly leading to premature cardio-vascular impairment? The legal fall-out, through class actions, could be stupendous. And lining up behind the lawyers would be the politicians waiting for a big, fat hand-out, or else. After all, it could be argued, a massive amount of taxpayers’ money has, historically, been funnelled into dealing with the collateral medical issues: time for industry to pay back the “subsidy”.

All the more could these arguments be applied to the side-effects of excessive alcohol consumption. The history of the tobacco industry suggests that free will and individual responsibility weigh little in the balance once these matters come to court.

And where the US leads, little Britain surely cannot be far behind.

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There’s only one solution to doctors’ health messages: ban them

January 22, 2010

Better for your daily health requirements

Not long ago, if you bit into a Kraft Oreo, munched some McDonald’s fries or tucked into a Kentucky Fried Chicken leg, the chances were you would be ingesting a nasty, toxic substance called trans fatty acid. Consume enough of it and it won’t do your health any good at all. It’s known to cause heart problems, by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility.

In small, probably harmless, doses, trans fatty acid is found in nature – especially in dairy products. The reason intake of the stuff reached epidemic proportions was because it can be synthesised easily and makes a cheap and superficially attractive alternative to butter-based saturated fats and lard. As such, it provides a useful shortening agent in baked products and can also be counted upon to extend shelf-life well beyond its natural span.

It is not a new discovery. The processed food industry has been using it, in increasing concentrations, for most of the past 100 years. The bio-chemical formula was first adopted by a UK company which later became a part of Unilever. In the same year, 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights and promptly launched Crisco, a shortening product that was based on hydrogenated cotton-seed oil (it still exists, but under different ownership, and in a different formulation). At the time, nothing was known of the lethal side effects of trans fatty acids. Indeed, the delusion continued to exist well into the sixties that trans fatty acids, found in various margarine products, were not only cheaper, but actually better for you.

What was the medical profession doing all this time? For most of the past century, it was being about as ineffectual in exposing the ill-effects of these fats as it was in combatting the well-known health-hazards of tobacco and alcohol. This was not because of a total absence of pathological evidence. On the contrary, indications of a possible connection with cancer began to emerge as early as the 1940s. There was reasonable doubt; it’s just that no one seemed to want to voice it in public.

I mention all this because doctors  have now adopted a high moral tone in calling for the banning of these man-made fats. The fact is, the horse has already bolted. Although Britain hasn’t – unlike Denmark, New York, California, Australia, Switzerland and Austria – actually prohibited the stuff, a quiet self-denying ordinance has already been put in place by UK food manufacturers and retailers. The latter made a pledge back in 2006 to eliminate it from all their own-label brands, which they have now fulfilled and Big Food is beating a hasty retreat. For this we have a public health campaign, BanTransFats.com, and the so-called Project Tiburon, to thank. It originated in 2003 with a court case against Kraft in California which then snowballed. I don’t recall the British medical profession being particularly vocal at the time. We had to wait until July 29, 2006 for an editorial in the British Medical Journal promoting “better labelling,” which seems to have stopped well short of calling for trans fats to be banned.

There’s nothing quite like jumping on a bandwagon, however, once someone else has got it rolling for you. A similar “bannist” tendency may be seen in the medical profession’s approach to alcohol advertising. No finer example of the genre exists than Professor Gerard Hastings’ recent polemical article in the BMJ.

His proposals for tightening up advertising regulation (to include among other things a 9pm watershed, digital and sponsorship restrictions) bear an uncanny resemblance to the recommendations just published by the Commons health select committee. Indeed, if I did not know better, I would have thought he had single-handedly masterminded them. So I don’t underestimate his influence as a lobbyist.

And yet, closely argued though the paper is, it somehow misses the point. Whatever impact marketing communications may have on increasing consumption of alcohol, it is scarcely the principal villain behind our lamentable ‘binge culture’. A better place to look for major remedial correction would be our unhinged drinking hours, below-cost supermarket offers (which most brands abhor) and a decline in social standards (not all of which can be blamed on the advertising industry). Hastings, however, is not notably interested in any of this. The true nature of his agenda is revealed in the last paragraph of his article, where he cites former advertising luminary David Abbott’s views on tobacco advertising. The only really satisfactory solution to alcohol advertising is to ban it, it seems.


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