There has been “a market failure” in the delivery of food that is healthy for people and for the environment and there is a case for the government to step in, a select committee has been told.
Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, was giving evidence as part of a panel to the Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee earlier this month.
She said: “There is a market failure – not a failure economically perhaps [as] the food industry is doing very well – but certainly a failure in terms of food delivering for health, food delivering for social justice, and food delivering for the environment.
“And I think that what that does is make the case for some substantive intervention by government in the system.”
She suggested that the government step in and control the “sheer availability and extreme marketing of food”.
Jebb was also critical of the government’s failure to act on childhood obesity. “The government is talking tough on obesity but it is not enough, and action is far far too slow. If you look at the childhood obesity plans most of them have been ‘we will consult on, we will discuss, we’ll consider, we’ll think about’.”
She added: “We look at the response to the coronavirus, as serious as it is, absolutely everything is out for it. Obesity is the biggest cause of diet related disease, it is the leading cause of morbidity in the UK and yet we have this sort of rather ‘oh well there’s a few things we might do’, ‘we’ll get round to them one day’.”
She added: “Advertising is affecting people’s choice. If we really wanted people to have a free choice we wouldn’t have any advertising at all and people would make the decision they wanted to make without being swayed by the company with the biggest marketing budget.”
Royal Society for Public Health chief executive Shirley Cramer suggested linking the benefits of healthy eating to the planet, as well as human health, to re-engage the public. She said: “What we eat and what we grow is related to climate change… if we can link this as a social movement for health, as well as around what we need to eat for a healthy planet and healthy people, that might be a better narrative than coming across stigmatising people and always looking at the negative end of it.”
The committee heard again how the government needs to address poverty in order for people to be able to afford to eat healthily. Cramer added: “We know that for example if you are on low income you have 42% of your money left after you’ve paid your rent. Clearly [healthy eating is] not a viable proposition for many people.”
Asked about public health campaigns, Cramer argued these needed to be targeted at improving income equality and around resources that would support people to buy healthy foods. An example might be to publicise Healthy Start vouchers in communities, but even with that she added: “It’s been the same amount of money – £3.10 – for the last ten years. It’s a tiny amount of money. It hasn’t gone up with inflation – we need to do something about that.”