Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. I was not thinking of just salt, I was thinking of the refining process of white bread. We lose so many of the nutrients.
  (Mr Podger) I would not myself take the view that in the context of a healthy diet it is essential not to consume white bread if you actually have a preference for white bread. I do come back to the general balance of the diet point.

  121. To return to my original point on advertising, do you think that advertising foods is balanced towards fresh products or processed?
  (Mr Podger) Because processed products tend to be the higher value, there is little doubt that it is biased towards processed products. In fact, as I indicated in an earlier answer in relation to children's television on Saturday morning, it is the products which are high in salt and sugar and fat which are extensively advertised. There is little doubt that the present market conditions result in little promotion of fruit and vegetables which is obviously a key issue in terms of eating a healthy diet.

  122. Some countries in Europe do not allow that sort of advertising on Saturday morning children's programmes, do they?
  (Mr Podger) Yes, I do not say essentially I think that should be the approach.

  123. Why not?
  (Mr Podger) It is actually a matter of judgement at the end of the day on two points. You can have voluntary agreements, which is what we are currently talking to the industry about, or there could be statutory restrictions which is a matter for Parliament to decide. The approach we are currently following is one of seeking further voluntary agreements with the industry.

  124. So for 20 years since commercial television in particular came on stream in the 1950s we have allowed companies to do what they are now no longer allowed to do in parts of Europe to protect their children. We, however, are not successful in protecting our children from acquiring those habits that the earlier evidence to this Committee said have to be broken early.
  (Mr Podger) Yes, and also sustained through life; this is the other point. We cannot assume that what happened purely in childhood dictates exclusively what people do thereafter.

  125. Mr Leigh gave us some very interesting and pertinent facts about cancer and about the cost of cancer. We as Parliament have decided to take pretty decisive action on that. Cigarettes cause cancer and we are banning advertising of cigarettes. Why do we not take the same attitude to processed foods which are stuffed with salts, fats and sugars?
  (Mr Podger) The issue of the acceptability of measures of those kind is essentially for Parliament to consider and to reach a view on. That is perfectly proper.

  126. Is your Agency going to make a recommendation?
  (Mr Podger) Yes. Our view would be that the key point is actually to appreciate the virtues of a balanced diet, but having a balanced diet does not in itself rule out these products. I also come back, if I may, to the issue I raised earlier about sustainability. If we are trying to move people in such a direction that they do not actually ever reach obesity at all, it is a question of finding a diet which they can happily maintain throughout their lives. One of the reasons why diets fail in the short term is because they make demands on the individual which people feel excessive. We need from them the ability to consume products which they particularly enjoy. That is why it seems to me that a balanced diet is the better way through.

  127. How are you going to break through that cycle of targeting children, promoting the products you yourself were critical of to children through advertising when no budget like that will advertise apples? Should we just levy pound for pound? If they are going to promote processed foods the same company should spend the same amount on advertising milk, preferably not full fat, and fruit. You never see cauliflower advertised, do you, or carrots or good healthy things like that, unless they are stuffed in a tin with a mixture?
  (Mr Podger) I have to say I have never seen cauliflower advertised.

  128. To return to my point about cigarette advertising, that is not seen by the majority in Parliament as praeconic. Banning advertising of foods to children, targeted at children, sweets as well as other things, is not seen as an infringement of civil liberties in some of the big democracies in Europe. Why is the Food Standards Agency not saying that the voluntary agreement for so many years has been so much hot air, has allowed the wool to be pulled over the eyes of Government and deflected Parliament from taking tough action?
  (Mr Podger) The Food Standards Agency, as I perhaps might remind the Committee, has been in being since April of last year. It not unreasonably takes the view that it would actually prefer to test first of all with industry what it is prepared to do to make a reasonable voluntary agreement. Clearly the outcome of that will be a matter for public knowledge, the Agency would reach a public view as to whether or not it considered that to be satisfactory. It would then be for Parliament itself to determine whether it wished to take the action you indicate.

  129. Is the Agency a lion or a mouse?
  (Mr Podger) I think if you asked those who negotiate with the Agency you would find they do nothing but complain so I take from that the view that we must be a lion.

  Mr Griffiths: I certainly hope so.

Mr Campbell

  130. To give us a comparison, what is the cost of ill health from smoking in terms of the cost to the NHS, the wider costs in terms of days lost at work and smoking related deaths?
  (Mr Crisp) I am afraid I am going to have to come back to you on that. I do not have that piece of information here.

  131. Where does it compare to obesity.
  (Mr Crisp) It is higher; it is the one thing which is higher.

  132. But obesity is heading in that direction because the number of people is high.
  (Mr Crisp) Yes, from what we have calculated.

  133. I, as a great fan of Ant and Dec, had to sit through Saturday morning television and I think you said earlier that 99 per cent of Saturday morning adverts are for foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt. I do not have to sit through cigarette adverts on a Saturday morning, do I? In fact I do not have to sit through cigarette adverts on television at all.
  (Mr Podger) Indeed and rightly not in my personal opinion.

  134. What is the difference then?
  (Mr Podger) The difference is that cigarettes are inherently harmful. The products which are being advertised here are not inherently harmful but would become so. One can argue about the degree in relation to the problem in relation to cigarettes. Therefore there is clearly a qualitative difference in what you are talking about. I do think that in all these issues of banning it is at the end of the day a societal judgement as to the extent to which you are prepared to go down the line of denying the free availability of choice through advertising as against the damage done. I do have to stress to you that the fundamental difference is that the products themselves are not damaging. They become damaging if they form an unbalanced diet. It is strongly our view as an Agency that a key point is actually not to project images which give an erroneous characteristic to the products. That is very important.

  135. But 99 per cent of adverts on a Saturday morning are for foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt. That is not a very balanced view, is it? I cannot remember the last time on a Saturday morning, that I saw an advert for fresh fruit or vegetables.
  (Mr Podger) No, but equally if you or I or a child eat one item of confectionary which they enjoyed, they would not thereby be putting themselves at risk. The risk comes if in fact they have a diet which is excessively concentrated in these products.

  136. You are making the argument for cutting down on cigarettes rather than the message which we are putting out now which is that the best route forward is to stop smoking.
  (Mr Podger) No, with respect, in relation to cigarettes the best thing by far is to stop smoking. I am not making the argument for cutting down, it is qualitatively different.

  137. I am struggling to find the difference between the two views, to be honest, but I want to move on.
  (Mr Crisp) I have the figure you wanted. It is £1.6 to £1.8 billion. It is three to four times as much as obesity. Obesity is number two.

  138. Could we go back to the Chairman's questions? I thought you misheard one of his questions when you went on to list the causes of obesity. I think what he was getting at, which is what I want to get at, is why has there been such a delay in tackling such a major problem? What have been the causes of the delay as opposed to the causes of obesity?
  (Mr Crisp) I am not sure there has been a particular delay inasmuch as this is something which has been growing rapidly as a problem over the last few years. Over this period we have seen more action happening on it, as is happening in other countries.

  139. Why have you seen more action? Because we are recognising the problem and therefore it is a pragmatic approach? Is there anything we have done in this country, for example, which has made it now more effective for us to tackle obesity? I am thinking about things like, for example, joined-up government or the fact that the NHS is less fragmented so you can deliver a national plan more effectively?
  (Mr Crisp) I do think that we are very clearly saying that we are in the business of promoting health and that health is about health services, but it is also about the wider determinants of health. You will have seen considerably more action more recently in working across departments as has been commented on here in terms of the overall approach. The reason it is more of a priority is that the prevalence of obesity doubled in a very short period so it has come up our priority list. We are tackling it with the two approaches of the much more clinical approach, which is dealing with patients when they are obese and working across government on the preventative issues.

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