Insights Nigel Fairbrass

Gluttons for punishment

Brexit may have paralysed much of government, but the Department of Health and Social Care still managed to serve up a consultation on junk food advertising this week, drawing scathing reviews from the food and hospitality industries.  Listed on the departmental menu for consideration was further advertising restrictions on products falling under the inedible acronym ‘HFSS’, or high in fat, sugar and salt.  The proposals would see junk food advertisements banned online from platforms such as Facebook and Google before 9 pm, tightening existing prohibitions on HFSS advertising around programming ‘commissioned or likely to appeal to children’.

Response? Tim Rycroft, Food and Drink Federation chief operating officer, didn’t mince his words, describing the consultation as “insulting”, and evidence that the government “has failed to notice that the UK is still not out of the Brexit logjam”.  His members “are battling to ensure the nation is fed” he declared and would not respond to the consultation “unless there is a material change to Brexit prospects.”  UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls was marginally more emollient but invoked both Brexit and jobs: “British high streets have been hit hard in recent years”, she said, “by a mix of rising costs… changing consumer trends… and Brexit uncertainties.  Hospitality venues are vital to the social lives of towns and cities… and preventing them from advertising would undermine high streets further.”

Impact? Given that this HFSS consultation is aimed primarily at improving the health and well-being of children, making Brexit and jobs the corner-stone of your defence feels like an exercise in cognitive dissonance.  A different response might have been to attack the contradictions in the government’s proposed food apartheid, which could demonise ingredients that we have been eating for generations. As the Institute of Economic Affairs points out in its briefing ‘What is Junk Food’, the junk food definitions set out in the Nutrient Profiling Model on which the government relies, technically encompasses such things as raisins, sultanas, ham, hummus, walnuts, most tinned fruit, most yoghurts, two-thirds of morning goods, nearly all cheese (including half-fat cheese), pesto, olive bread, salads with dressing, cream crackers, tomato soup, dried fruit, cereal bars, butter, margarine, olive oil, many pasta sauces and 25 per cent of sandwiches.  Indeed, under a proposed tightening of the Profiling Model, most high-fibre breakfast cereals, 49 per cent of coffee and 89 per cent of fruit juice and smoothies would also qualify as junk – despite the fact that the NHS recommends the latter as one of your five-a-day.

The ban on junk food advertising on the London Underground is already throwing up baffling examples of censorship.  The grocery company Farmdrop was recently forced by Transport for London to crop a photograph of foodstuffs on a table to remove the bacon, eggs and butter before it could use it in an advert.  As marketing director Damian Hind remarked to the Evening Standard last week: “It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s nonsense to score a product in its raw form.  You eat them with other products.  It’s the basics of cooking.”

The government’s drive on HFSS products might be aimed primarily at children, but it’s another example of the neo-paternalism, garbed in the white coat of the public health community, which effectively infantilises and makes victims of us all.  Junk food is as much a value judgment as it is a category.  It’s a concept replete with a side-order of the prejudice and sneering condescension that comes with contempt for lifestyles different to our own.  There is also an absurdity in condemning certain foodstuffs over others without taking into account the context in which they’re consumed, as no one consciously sets out to eat ‘bad’ food.  So, if the food and hospitality industries could just expose the HFSS movement for the covert cultural imposition that it is, they might avoid being such gluttons for punishment.