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Will Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham break (organic, non-fattening, nutritionally-balanced) bread together?

By Peter Hoskin
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I was going to write a LeftWatch post about Andy Burnham’s new crusade against unhealthy foods, but then something intriguing happened that made it more of a ToryDiary post. So, here is that ToryDiary. But let’s start with Mr Burnham anyway.

As reported in the papers this morning, the shadow health secretary is mooting the idea of greater regulation of foods. Specifically, he suggests that the state might clamp down on foods that are high in sugars and fats, and particularly those aimed at children. He’s even proposed a 30 per cent cap on the sugar content in breakfast cereals such as Frosties. As he sees it, the Government’s current “voluntary” arrangements with food companies just aren’t bringing about the desired results.

Cue much ridicule of Mr Burnham across Twitter, not all of it unjustified. The shadow health secretary may have some very proper motivations driving him on, but there’s still something slightly, unavoidably ridiculous about him ruling over the sugar levels in kids’ cereals. “Leave my Sugar Puffs alone,” as the 4-year-old girl on YouTube puts it.

But then that intriguing thing happened: in an interview this afternoon, Jeremy Hunt said that “a lot more needs to be done” to reduce the sugar and salt content in supermarket food, and that “of course” the Government would consider legislation if the food industry doesn’t “put [its] house in order”. This was, it’s true, not an entirely consensual statement from Mr Hunt: he attacked Mr Burnham for not acting when he was himself in government, and defended the existing voluntary set-up. But it does suggest that the Health Secretary and his shadow aren’t a thousand miles apart on this issue.

I suspect Burnham’s mistake today was to start off by calling for controls on sugary cereals, leading to the inevitable “cereal killer” headlines. There are certainly more persuasive ways to convey the broader points he’s making, and more persuasive policy ideas too, as Camilla Cavendish demonstrated in an article for the Times (£) this week. She concentrated on the trans fats in our foods:

“These are cheap industrial substances that prolong the shelf-life of products such as cereal, doughnuts, processed meat, ready meals and crisps, and give them more bulk or texture. Hydrogenation turns liquid vegetable oils into harder substances that clog our arteries and are associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes and the increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. They were named as a toxin by the World Health Organisation in 2009.”

And then highlighted some areas where Government action might actually be warranted:

“I have just looked to see how many trans fats lurk in my kitchen. A packet of crackers states reassuringly that it contains 0g of trans fat. But it lists ‘shortening (hydrogenated vegetable oil)’ as an ingredient. That is trans fat. If manufacturers are still misleading even conscientious consumers, the Government is being nowhere near tough enough with the food industry.”

With obesity costing the NHS around £5 billion a year, I find it fairly surprising that politicians don’t talk about food more often. Capping sugar levels in cereals may not be the right answer, but surely there are sensible taxpayer savings to be made somewhere — and with health benefits, too. So go on, Messrs Hunt and Burnham, share a pack of Ryvita and think it through.

> READ: Harry Phibb's post on why Westminster Council is proposing docking benefits from the fat


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