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NICE oversteps the mark in ‘last hurrah’ against Big Food

June 22, 2010

If I were the chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, I would be very careful where I trod right now. Quangos are looking highly dispensable in the forthcoming Exchequer purge of the public sector.

So what does NICE do? It plays the turkey voting for Christmas. Twice in the past month it has come out with a series of recommendations that are not only – arguably – beyond its remit but are also like a red rag to the new blue-and-yellow striped government.

First, it called for a watershed ban on advertising alcohol, when the government has already ruled that out. Now, in the process of advocating a total ban on so-called trans fats and a general assault on salty foods, it has not only recommended another watershed ad ban (see above) but proposed the introduction of the “traffic light” colour coded food warning system only days after it was rejected by the European Union.

NICE’s raison d’être is to save lives by improving the quality of healthcare (and by implication reduce the heavy financial burden associated with it). There’s no doubting that trans fatty acid is a nasty substance that can cause heart disease by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and that it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility. Nor that it has, in the past, been widely used by the processed food industry as a shortening agent (eg in biscuits) and as a substitute for butter (for instance, in margarine). But it’s definitely on the way out. Some countries – among them Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and parts of the United States – have already prohibited it. Britain has not got that far yet, but since 2006 our supermarkets have employed a self-denying ordinance, and the food manufacturers have been quietly phasing it out.

NICE’s determination to rid us of this noxious substance is not as disinterested as the organisation would have us believe. Behind it seems to lie an agenda: a crusade aimed at the food industry in general, and its freedom of commercial expression in particular.

Of course, in the longer run NICE is right to flag up the trans fat issue. Sooner or later its harmful effects – like those of tobacco – are going to become big business for lawyers in the States. For NICE, though, there may not be a longer run, if it goes on behaving the way it is. Government ministers are likely to conclude it is an organisation out of control. And we know what that could mean in these austere times.

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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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