Enemy of the obese state

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Public health, Food industry, Nutrition

Abbott: "The government, I am afraid, is in the pocket of food manufacturers"
Abbott: "The government, I am afraid, is in the pocket of food manufacturers"
Shadow minister for public health Diane Abbott is no friend of the food industry or the coalition government's health policy. Reports Rick Pendrous

Diane Abbott, shadow minister for public health, is unsurprisingly no fan of the present government's policies, which she fears are taking the health of nation backwards.

She's no friend of the food industry either, believing it to be responsible for peddling far too many unhealthy products that have contributed to the obesity epidemic. She also accuses the industry of having the government in its pocket.

When I met Abbott in the Palace of Westminster it was shortly before chancellor George Osborne presented his much-awaited Autumn statement to MPs. You might have forgiven her for being more interested in securing a good seat for one of the major events of the political calendar especially at a time of such economic turmoil. But, to be fair, she is passionate about her public health brief and is happy to take the opportunity to share her views on it.

Abbott is scathing of the government's Public Health Responsibility Deal: the initiative being championed by health secretary Andrew Lansley.

"The concern of campaigners, clinicians and medical bodies such as the British Medical Association is that the government is allowing commercial food interests to drive the agenda,"​ says Abbott. "While everyone understands that government has to work with health professionals and the industry, people think it should be ahead of the agenda."

But she goes even further: "Many of the outcomes of the responsibility deals have been marginal compared with the challenge we are faced with when it comes to food and alcohol. That's the point: we are allowing business to drive the agenda and the outcomes are marginal."

While she recognises that industry had reformulated many products to reduce the levels of fat, salt and sugar they contain, her main beef was that, despite this, companies continued to spend huge sums of money promoting unhealthy foods particularly ones aimed at children and she wanted to see action taken to curb this. She also argues that too much emphasis in reformulation was to do with extending the shelf-life of products rather than making them nutritionally healthier.

Saturated by advertising

"It's fine to have some token improvements in the responsibility deals, but the question is what we are doing about the way children and families are saturated by promotions for food that is fundamentally unhealthy?" ​she says. She cites sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics by the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

"That isn't sending the right message if it is meant to be a healthy Olympics," she adds. "All the evidence shows us that excessive consumption of sweet fizzy drinks and takeaway fast foods is contributing to the obesity problem we are facing."

Abbott is particularly interested in child obesity and bad diet and health among poor sections of the community. As the first black woman elected to parliament representing the London inner city constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, she is also interested in the nutrition and health of the ethnic groups that make up this area.

"It is very much an issue in a community like mine,"​ she says. "The numbers of obese children are rising, as is the incidence of type II diabetes."

Another issue facing poor people living in inner city areas is the proliferation of fast food outlets at the expense of traditional outlets selling fresh food and vegetables, she claims.

Traffic light labelling

Abbott is great fan of front-of-pack traffic light labelling, which she argues is easy for ordinary people to understand and drives retailers to stock healthier products on their shelves.

"People need to make the right choices, but they can't if they don't have the right information,"​ she argues. "And the sort of information we have on manufactured foods now is actually quite difficult to understand." ​She is also calling for better labelling of food within foodservice outlets.

Though supported by some retailers such as Sainsbury and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) before the present government transferred its responsibilities for nutrition and health to the Department of Health (DoH) traffic light labelling is widely rejected by the food industry. Many food manufacturers and others argue that traffic lights are unscientific and demonise certain categories of foods. Instead, they have embraced nutrient labelling using guideline daily amounts.

Abbott expresses concern about the transfer of nutrition and health from the FSA to the DoH. "The FSA had a measure of independence. Now this issue is within the DoH proper, we worry about the independence of the advice that people will be getting,"​ she says.

However, she is unconvinced about the use of fiscal instruments, such as the fat tax on foods introduced by Denmark in September in a bid to reduce levels of obesity.

"I think these issues are worth looking at,"​ she says. "But I am not persuaded because the reasons people have poor diets are not just related to cost. It's like the reason people drink too much is not because alcohol is cheap. And so I don't rule out a fiscal policy but I think we have to look at a lot of other things first."

Despite this view, Abbott is in favour of minimum pricing to prevent the abuse of alcohol by youngsters.

Regrettable obesity strategy

But Abbott reserves her harshest criticism for government, its obesity strategy and what she considers the abdication of its responsibilities to drive the health and nutrition of the nation. "I think it is very regrettable that [Andrew Lansley] has abolished the panel of experts [on tackling obesity],"​ she added. "I know that some of them are upset and think it is a step backwards."

She continues: "The obesity strategy was a perfectly good description of the problem. But I couldn't see in practice what they were going to achieve. It lacked context, it lacked levers to pull."

She adds: "The government, I am afraid, is in the pocket of food manufacturers. It is listening too much to the food industry and not enough to health experts. I just think the government is hiding behind these responsibility deals to avoid taking a real lead itself."

Abbott recognises that obesity is a very complex issue, requiring a combination of action from government and individuals to resolve. From planning controls to limits on fast food outlets; from restrictions on food advertising, to better education in schools and elsewhere to help people help themselves.

While she echoes the criticism voiced by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver over the government's decision to abandon much of the work done to improve school dinners, she is equally aware of the influence of role models on young people.

"A generation ago pop stars particularly in America tended to come from working class communities and be quite skinny," notes Abbott. "Now you have these rappers who are obese, which points to obesity being more of an issue for poor people who, perhaps, live in food deserts where it is harder to get fresh foods."

She supports the calls of those campaigning for the retention of education in cooking and food science in schools. "You've got to get to children so that they understand more about what they eat; they understand about cooking; so their attitudes to nutrition are improved," says Abbott. "That's where you'll make a difference. It's not about people eating less."

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