Time for a balanced view of food debate

Are society’s long-term interests being harmed by the current treatment of the obesity issue?

The other day I unexpectedly felt a twinge of sympathy for a McDonald’s executive. It came at a fraught Westminster forum debating advertising to children, obesity and diet – the kind of meeting where you felt that, in less-civilised times, hand-to-hand fighting would have broken out.

The McDonald’s man said it had changed its menus and had sold 10 million bags of fresh fruit to UK customers in a year. “What more can we do?” he asked. To which the nutritionists responded with a hiss: “Close down.” To which I felt like hissing back “grow up”. Now, the obesity debate is a crucial one for public health and is one taking place globally, not just here in the UK.

Some of the world’s biggest brands are being named and shamed daily for their over-salty, over-sugared recipes. Bad news makes for big headlines. And let’s face it, Food Standards Agency chairman Sir John Krebs is one of the best communicators in the UK.

But is it being conducted fairly? And is it in society’s longterm interests? As Echo Research’s key findings on global media perceptions, published last month, say – companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Kraft and Pepsico, for all their power, are at a natural disadvantage.

They suffer from a “lack of trust” – no surprises there – but they are also not necessarily being given credit for what they are trying to do.

Fast-food operators are far from angels. But they are easy to demonise. Yes, McDonald’s was sued for making children fat and the company is being urged by the World Health Organisation to cut fat, salt and sugar. But, after a period of eight years, I’m a returned McDonald’s customer – provided my children have the good-value salad options.

It remains an amazingly cheap, accessible place, full of ordinary parents and kids, somewhere you get change from a tenner. The salted fries are there, but so are the cherry tomatoes and apples.

It’s a matter of individual choice. Swapping food categories. Parents and individuals have a big role in fighting obesity, as do governments and corporations.

So what is ad land to do as it awaits new curbs on advertising, marketing sponsorship and promotions and its leaders seem almost paralysed at the way the ground has shifted under its feet in less than two years.

Well, food is not the same as tobacco. To eat and enjoy an occasional bar of chocolate or bag of crisps is not a sin. To feed a densely populated nation, you need big food manufacturers and processed food. No one is saying put a skull and cross bones on tins of loony toons pasta, just an experimental traffic light system.

The critical House of Commons health committee report has given business three years to adapt. Food companies and their marketers have a golden opportunity to adopt reformist measures – including staged reductions in fat, sugar and salt – and develop more healthy lines, so that their legally available food falls within tightened healthy guidelines.

Advertisers and agencies have just landed a good co-regulatory deal from Ofcom to run their own broadcast advertising regime. It would be more than sensible to start volunteering code changes to the sections on food and children. But be realistic.

Voluntary restrictions on targeting kids may play a part, but past experience, limiting children’s toy promotions at Christmas, pushed up prices.

Yet all ad agencies love their charity work – big kudos and a break from pushing consumer goods. Perhaps some pro bono work for apples, pears and mangoes would play well to both the public and politicians?

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