Ministers worry about weight: the cost to the National Health Service of obesity-related illnesses will swell by nearly a third to £3.6 billion by 2010. At the end of last year the Labour government promised to fight this ‘obesity crisis’ by reining in the firms selling high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foodstuffs.
In December 2003 culture minister Tessa Jowell promised a tough new advertising code blocking adverts for unhealthy food during children’s television programmes. This announcement followed the introduction of a bill in Parliament by Labour MP Debra Shipley to ban junk food ads targeting toddlers. However, although Shipley’s bill received widespread publicity and apparently was the spur for Jowell’s December announcement, it did not become law. Shipley complained to The Ecologist about ‘lack of support’ from Jowell following ‘intense lobbying’ by the fast-food industry.
Jowell’s officials began backtracking soon after the minister’s headline-grabbing announcement. While Jowell promised immediate action, Ofcom chief executive Stephen Carter spoke to MPs of a ‘six-month schedule’. The communications industries regulator now proposes ‘major new research’ and consultation with interested bodies before it decides what ‘specific action may be needed’. Angered by this foot-dragging, Shipley told The Ecologist that she was ‘appalled that [Jowell] is still delaying action and is kicking the issue into the long grass again’. After all, the government’s own watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has already carried out a research review that shows ‘advertising does affect children’s food choices and behaviour, and not just which brands but the types of food they choose’. Yet Ofcom has rejected these findings in favour of its own long-winded plans including ‘producing an overview of the market for food promotion to children, evaluating television’s role in the total media landscape and charting recent changes in family lifestyles’.
According to Shipley, ‘the food and drink industry will be happy with this delaying tactic. It can just wait for a [Cabinet] reshuffle, when we will have to start all over again’. Shipley claims that ‘the food industry is lobbying [Jowell] very hard’. When the MP asked for a list of meetings between Jowell or her officials and the food industry, instead of posting the reply on Parliament’s website, as is normal, the government hid its response in a letter deposited in the House of Commons library. A copy of Jowell’s letter obtained by The Ecologist shows the minister met a delegation from Cadbury Schweppes and the industry lobby the Food and Drink Federation in October. Her officials also went to the Food Advertising Unit’s (FAU) annual conference in November. The FAU campaigns against increased restrictions on advertising. Its chair, Jeremy Preston, is also the chairman of Nestlé’s breakfast cereals division.
The food and advertising industries’ arguments against restrictions frequently beggar belief. In November representatives of the confectionery, takeaway and supermarket industries were called before MPs on the House of Commons Health Committee. Tim Mobsby, Kellogg’s area president for breakfast cereal manufacturer in Europe, told Parliament that children would ‘stop eating breakfast’ if advertisements for sugary cereals like Coco Pops were taken off children’s television.
While the food industry’s arguments may be weak, its links with the Labour government are strong. Also interrogated by the Health Committee was McDonald’s vice-president Julian Hilton-Johnson. Just one month earlier Hilton-Johnson had addressed a meeting on corporate social responsibility chaired by former agriculture minister Nick Brown (and sponsored by McDonald’s) at October’s Labour Party conference. Also speaking was Labour employment minister Ivan Lewis, who was driven to say: ‘I feel as if I have been unwittingly involved in a McDonald’s marketing campaign.’ McDonald’s executives regularly attend Labour Party conferences, although a 2001 donation of £15,000 by the company was the cause of major embarrassment to the party. The Ecologist asked McDonald’s if it sought a close relationship with Labour in an attempt to fend off regulation. A company spokesman said its presence at the Labour Party conference was ‘primarily about talking to MPs about what’s happening in their constituencies, like our work with community football’. You wonder if he meant the sort of ‘community football’ that has resulted in three Labour MPs – Mike Gapes (Ilford), Ian Luke (Dundee East) and Russell Brown (Dumfries) – thanking McDonald’s for providing ‘accommodation and hospitality’ or football match tickets in the current Parliamentary register.
One of the ways McDonald’s makes its presence felt in Parliament is through the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger, which also works with other New Labour favourites Monsanto and British Nuclear Fuels. Last year Bell Pottinger hired the appropriately named Rhoda McDonald, previously spin doctor to former secretary of state for Scotland and Cabinet minister Helen Liddell, to handle the burger firm’s account. Somebody who no longer works for Bell Pottinger is David Hill; he’s the man who replaced Alastair Campbell as Labour’s head of communications.
Furthermore, when education minister David Miliband wanted someone to serve on a committee recommending ‘reforms’ of 14-19-year-olds’ education, who did he recruit? Former McDonald’s executive Carmel Flatley. Yet McDonald’s was criticised last year for supplying schools with burger vouchers offered to pupils as incentives for good behaviour and work. The fast-food giant also offers free course packs to schools through ‘education business partnerships’. The Ecologist asked McDonald’s if its work in schools was comparable to the aggressive marketing to children exposed in the ‘McLibel’ trial. A company spokesman responded: ‘We have moved on since then.’
The school packs offered by the firm to The Ecologist were indeed not heavily branded. However, the government might find it difficult to ban McDonald’s ads targeting children when it invites the same firm to help out in schools. Confectionery firm Cadbury is also close to Labour. Not to be outdone by McDonald’s, it paid for another meeting on ‘corporate social responsibility’ at the 2003 Labour conference. The meeting was addressed by Cadbury’s PR director Neil Makin and by trade minister Stephen Timms. Makin spoke at a similar meeting at the previous year’s conference, alongside education minister Baroness Ashton. She is responsible for nursery education and the ‘healthy schools’ initiative, promoting an ‘eat more fruit and veg’ scheme for children. Fliers for these meetings promised ‘Lunch and chocolates provided’. Meanwhile, Cadbury enthusiastically supports Young Enterprise, a charity that promotes business education in schools. Yet the firm was heavily criticised last year for its scheme to give schools free sports kit in return for chocolate bar wrappers.
The Health Committee also called up representatives from Tesco to explain the supermarket’s involvement in the unhealthy foods business. Tesco sent its public affairs director David North. He was previously a private secretary to Tony Blair, and is another business representative to address a Labour Party conference meeting sponsored by his own corporation.
Finally, Blair’s friend and political guru Peter Mandelson is a director of ad agency Clemmow Hornby Inge. One of the firm’s best-known campaigns could sum up the feelings of parents forlornly hoping the government might put children’s health before the interests of junk food multinationals. It reads: ‘You know when you’ve been Tangoed’.
Solomon Hughes is an investigative journalist who writes regularly for Private Eye, The Guardian and Red Pepper
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2004