Sunday, January 9, 2011


Countries world over are concerned about the deteriorating health condition of their population due to the fast pace of modern life, over consumption of imbalanced food and leading a sedentary life with very little regular exercise. Processed food industry is invariably blamed for luring the consumers to highly satisfying foods from the sensory angle without bothering to make them healthy also. High levels of sugar, fat and salt and low fiber content are characteristic features of almost all processed foods that provide high culinary pleasure to the consumer but these foods are also known to cause a plethora of diseases including diabetes, CVD, blood pressure and many other major ailments entailing huge cost in health care in many countries. Voluntary efforts and persuasive cajoling do not seem to have any impact on the situation as reflected by increased incidence of life-style disorders amongst people at large. The British experiment in doling out cash to its citizens to buy healthy foods needs close watching though prima facie it is unlikely to have any dramatic impact.

"As the festive season comes to a close the British government has announced a £250 million ($390 million) industry-financed plan to promote healthy eating. Now millions of people will receive vouchers offering discounts on healthy foods. It is a part of the coalition government's 'Change4Life' programme that is targeting Britain's growing rates of obesity. The Change4Life campaign was initially begun in 2009 by the previous Labour government, which said that if the plan failed to reduce obesity within three years it might look at regulating the food industry. Now the eight month old Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition feels regulations do not do the job but a gentle push towards healthy habits may help. Now millions in England would get £50 worth of vouchers offering discounts on foods such as low-fat yogurts, wholegrain rice, frozen vegetables, fruit and alcohol-free lager. The News of the World Weekly will distribute three million books of vouchers and Asda, the British arm of U.S. retailer Wal-Mart, will hand out a million; and community groups a further million. Discounts are offered on foods from companies including Kellogg, Unilever, Nestle, Mars, baker Warburtons and frozen food brand Bird's Eye as well as some Asda own-brand goods and trainers from sportswear retailer JJB Sports. Parents will also be offered access to nutritional advice and recipes as an incentive to make healthy changes in their family's food and fitness habits. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley feels this idea is a "great example of how government, the media, industry and retailers can work together to help families to be healthy." The interim Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies said, "Ideally we should be doing 30 minutes of exercise five times a week – or an hour a day for children…Exercise doesn't have to be painful – you could take the dog for a walk or play with your kids in the park. Anything that gets your heart pumping. And we should try to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day." However some experts have accused food manufacturers of using it to enhance their image. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London's City University is one who is not so sure. He said, "Is it a public health strategy? No, it is a corporate brand protection strategy." He added, "I'm nervous if big companies are put in charge of public health – that's not to say they can't be good for public health – but if they are centrally involved in delivering it… I think that history suggests we need to set frameworks, level playing fields in which they then operate." Tam Fry, a board member of the National Obesity Forum added that the programme a step in the right direction but said it was too short-term to change people's mindset about food".

The criticism that the program can serve only the interests of the manufacturers of branded foods has some merit but if closely monitored and right mix of foods is identified to be healthy, it may still have "some" effect. There are bound to be logistical constraints in administering the program and only real time experience in the field will bring out the problems. If the objective is to "train" the citizens in buying healthy foods, the program has to be run for a long time requiring massive funding from the government. A better alternative could have been to put a nominal price for the foods identified as healthy and subsidize the balance by the government. If the basket of products earmarked for the healthy food campaign contains main stream foods, there would be better chance of success. The UK experiment is worth watching and if successful can be replicated in other countries facing similar health crisis.


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