Friday, 25 April 2008

The man who killed Ronald McDonald

Have just been in the Chamber for Nigel Griffiths' Food Products (Marketing to Children) Bill.
Much of the debate has focused on obesity, but I spoke on the link between unhealthy diet and mental health/ behavioural problems in children and young offenders, as shown by recent academic research. We'd been forewarned that the Tories would try to talk the Bill out, and it certainly seems that Christopher Chope is trying to do that; he's been on his feet for over half an hour now and shows no signing of stopping.

Another Nigel (Evans, Conservative) intervened on Nigel Griffiths earlier, referring to the Which? campaign against cartoon characters being used to advertise junk food. He asked if Nigel wanted to be known as "the man who killed Ronald McDonald"? (I can't speak for Nigel, but the might well be yes!)

I intervened on Nigel Evans at one point, but I think he misunderstood the point I was making. He was arguing that the information on food products at the moment, giving percentages of recommended daily allowances, was a better system than the traffic light system advocated by many food campaigners. I made the point that many consumers already have to scan packaging for a range of other information - e..g if they have food allergies, or if, like me, they don't eat animal products. It all adds to the length of a shopping trip, and it's much easier if there are simple symbols. (The increasing use of the "Vegan" symbol on food, or a statement saying "suitable for vegans" is a godsend - means I don't have to worry about looking for lactic acid or caseinates or whey powder or albumin or other things that occasionally slip through the net and you only discover it when you get home).

Nigel Evans' response implied that he thought I was saying that the traffic light system would help people with nut allergies identify those products, as he started saying nuts were a bad thing for some people, but quite a healthy food item for others. I didn't mean that at all. I meant that if someone was worried about their weight or general health, and wanted to eat healthily, they could head for the products showing the green traffic light, and then scan for whether it contained nuts. Which would be quicker than comparing percentages of fat, salt, etc, and also having to check for nuts or gluten or animal products.

All the Tories in the Chamber were against the Bill. John Whittindale, who I think is Chair of the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee, argued that a ban on advertising junk food to children would harm children's broadcasting by cutting advertising revenues. He said there was no evidence that advertising of junk food increased consumption, and people should just exercise moderation. I asked him if he thought the same should apply to advertising cigarettes and alcohol; I think the answer was sort of yes, but then he backtracked and said it was different. Even one cigarette is obviously bad for you, whereas there is no such thing as a bad food, just too much of it. One burger is OK; going on a Supersize Me style binge isn't. Seems like a fairly spurious argument to me. One cigarette isn't going to kill anyone; forming a habit is. Ditto with drinking, and with junk food.

Lib Dems - all two of them - seemed divided on the issue, or at least falling off the same fence on different sides, with the front bench opposing and the sole backbencher speaking mostly in favour but not quite. (I was tempted to intervene and point out that I'd seen him in Costcutters a few weeks ago, buying two large packets of biscuits and three cans of Chocolatte after a late night vote, and whether he felt he'd been exposed to too much junk food advertising in his youth, but thought better of it).

More later...

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