Why there’s lots to love – and learn – about English food

The mad cow disease epidemic in the UK led to the creation of the Food Standards Agency, which put the public interest back into food policy. Barry/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

When the English cricket team toured Australia last year they were ridiculed for their dietary requirements long before their humiliation on the pitch. But while English cricket may be wanting, England’s approach to nutrition leaves Australia in the dust.

The debacle around Australian food labelling policy highlights the problem. For two years now, the largest industry bloc in the country has systematically delayed, undermined and watered down efforts to have the nutritional content of foods displayed on the front of packaging. And with the current government, it’s working hard to get out of it completely.

By contrast, the United Kingdom has sector-wide agreement on traffic light labels.

A new nicotine

Why is Australian industry dictating the terms when poor dietary choices kill more people than tobacco? Very simply because salt, sugar and fat are the nicotine of food corporations.

They drive the profits of a $100 billion-sector that employs one in 20 Australians and walks tall in Canberra. The downsides of this success are unprecedented epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and billions of dollars in health-care expenditure.

But it seems it’s still easier to patch up the problem with the health system, than risk the wrath of the food industry by invoking prevention. Because there’s nothing to see if a stroke or a heart attack is prevented, but plenty to write about if the “nanny state” tries to prevent a grown adult eating a toxic waste burger.

Australia managed to overcome issues like these for smoking with some inspirational leadership. And our tobacco control measures are now the envy of the civilised world.

The UK has managed something similar with food - in particular its program of work to remove salt from the national diet is world leading.

A silver lining

Paradoxically, it was another food disaster that gave salt reduction efforts in the United Kingdom their leg up – bovine spongiform encephalopathy better known as mad cow disease.

Analysis of the mad cow disease epidemic showed that having the same UK ministry responsible for both farming practices and food safety produced unmanageable conflicts of interest. Policies designed to maximise profits allowed grossly unsafe approaches to animal husbandry to flourish.

Out of this was borne the UK Food Standards Agency, established to put the public interest back into food policy. Mad cow disease turned out not to be the health catastrophe first feared and the Agency was able to turn its attention to other areas.

Salt reduction was one of the first to benefit. The special provisions of the UK Food Standards Act allowed the Agency to publish all advice provided to ministers, and it has done this from its inception.

It also elected to take all decisions about food policy at open meetings of its Board, providing unprecedented transparency in decision making and recommendations. This is a far cry from the opaque processes operating in Australia.

The unedifying spectacle of recent Australian food labelling policy needs no further description. But it’s symptomatic of a deeper problem - decisions about food policy are made at a glacial pace behind closed doors and are dominated by industry groups and commercial considerations.

In the first four years of its current action plan, the federal government’s Food and Health Dialogue set food reformulation targets in only 11 out of a possible 124 areas. And has formally reported on the success or failure of none.

Hope yet

What hope for us down under then? Well, it’s pretty much the Wild West out there at the moment, so the only way is up. If the previous government was slow on the uptake, perhaps the current administration can do better.

Government is right to see control of over-the-horizon health-care costs as key to balancing its books. Policies and incentives that steer Australians away from salt, sugar and fat will not only deliver for the national waistline, but also for the treasurer’s bottom line.

Immediate roll out of front-of-pack labelling would be a great opener. Not only would consumers get to see what’s in the foods they’re eating but industry will be forced to compete on health - five-star foods will attract more buyers than three-star products.

Better implementation of the Food and Health Dialogue objectives would make for a sweet follow through. Providing consumers with better choices is a first step. But changing the food environment so that healthier products become the norm will drive really large, really cost-effective improvements in health.

A government seeking a quick fix for its expenditures need look no further. England is already reaping the health and economic benefits of putting nutrition before politics; recent data shows salt reduction is now preventing thousands of deaths, and saving the UK billions of dollars in health care costs.

It’s just not cricket for Australia to be left sitting on the sidelines.

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