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What Hopes for Inspiration from the Renewed DEFRA? - 03/08/2010
 

The Food Standards Agency Survives - Just


1. "Fast-food chains and restaurants have just quietly sunk a plan by Britain's food watchdog to display calorie counts in eating outlets across the country," The Independent (26/07/10) can disclose. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) had set up a trial with many of the biggest fast-food and restaurant companies, in which they printed calorie-counts next to products on the shelves, on menus, or next to tills; however, chains such as KFC and Burger King have failed to commit to extending the trials. Others, such as Pizza Hut, Mitchells and Butlers (which runs the Harvester chain), and the caterer Compass have abandoned theirs. Only one major company of 18 firms that tested the idea, Pret A Manager, now displays calories next to all its products.

2. "Many customers are unaware of how quickly calories can add up, with one Pizza Hut pizza weighing in at 2656 kcals - the daily allowance of 2500 for a man - a large Burger King milkshake having 612 kcals and a Starbuck's carrot cake contributes 560 kcals, a quarter of a woman's recommended daily intake of 2000 kcals," states the Independent's reporter, adding: "The news means that calorie counts are only being listed next to food in the way the FSA intended in about 300 outlets or 3% of the 6000 major fast food and sandwich shops run by leading names."

3. Food campaigners expressed disappointment that the project looked doomed to fail. Comments from the new appointments at DEFRA (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) about the personal responsibilities and needs for reliable figures are not being fulfilled or the failure of the research to give something that people want are complaints aired by some of the foodies (most of whom would probably be at a loss when asked to interpret the information for themselves or their children or grandparents; and they may be concerned for other nutrients and comparisons with competitors' products and in the range of size of serving and of the plate it is presented on. As part of its campaigning VEGA produces weekly recipes for meals prepared at home in which eating plans in its portfolio are assessed on the basis of all the appropriate collections of data that we, and our chartered nutritionist, can find. We are proud, for instance, of our information on a meat- and dairy- free pizza, but have to declare some shortcomings over composite cooked foods for which the nutrient values must be derived by adding data for the ingredients before treating the mixtures to make, say, a loaf for which we have no affordable way to appraise the content of the final bread.

4. The FSA panders to customers and the press who expect too much from surveys of "what people want" and fill in boxes of primed questions that yield information in abundance for a standard consumer, who hardly bothers to read the labels anyway. So we do the best we can, with what opportunities are allowed to us at Open meetings of the FSA's Board (which are dominated by bum-numbing hours devoted to attempts at rescuing the evil meat and dairy-industries, picketing and leafleting these meetings, and pursuing our cause with petitions essaying some circumvention of the hold DEFRA officials and appointees assert over the FSA. Recent changes and appointments at DEFRA and reallocations, particularly of nutritional, health and environmental matters (with the corollaries in animal welfare and the politicking that has accompanied these changes) have done much harm and delay to NGOs and strongly independent charities offering some life and inspiration in foodie matters; as scientists and beggared researchers, our pleas to the FSA for effectual and fruitful interactions with well-heeled organisations such as FERA (Food Environment Research Agency) and the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) have been obstructed, while the FSA has been liberally financing projects keeping inexperienced politicians with instant food policies - and even "ethics" - in jobs.

5. So we can sympathize with some of the difficulties caterers and cooks at all levels are having with interpreting some of the FSA's schemes, because - with our Portfolio of Eating Plans and Campaign for Real Bread CAMREB launched many years ago and with the Horn v Corn debate coming our way with authoritative advice on cutting down on meat and dairy - we tackle the challenges in a forthright way in which the wealth of emerging science, technology and R and D can be applied. We hope that those aims and purposes will not be thwarted in what seems to run counter to all the pre-election promises to reduce skilled staffing, paperwork, overlapping, and muddle.

6. The caterer or the bread-maker at home who bothers to read labels on bread (except, annoyingly, on sales of in-store bakeries and most craft and artisanal enterprises, with scanty wrapping) is now much better informed on progress achieved in, say, comparing adjustments in fat and salt that the manufacturers have striven to alter in the ways the FSA is trying to foster, much in the direction the FSA is trying to pursue after years of work, even before CAMREB was launched; these factors also involve VEGA's efforts, in conjunction with the Nutrition Society and British Dietetic Association and schools, to give effect to the FSA's campaigning on profiling and labelling, which seems due now to be dumped onto an unprepared Dept. of Health.

7. Or would it? The Coalition's list of Ministers at DEFRA, all Conservatives, including the Secretary of State, includes these people under her with some of the interests and responsibilities due to them.

Jim Paice MP

  • Farming
  • Food
  • Animal health (including endemic and exotic disease)
  • Responsibility and cost-sharing
  • Welfare of farm animals
  • Single Payments Scheme
  • RDPE (Rural Development Programme for England)
  • Forestry (including Forestry Commission)
  • Agriculture and forestry carbon budgets
  • Hunting and shooting
  • Agricultural Wages
  • Gangmasters Licencing
  • Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS)

Richard Benyon MP

  • Natural environment
  • Ecosystem services
  • Biodiversity
  • National parks and areas of outstanding beauty
  • Wildlife
  • JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee)
  • Flooding and water (including Nitrates)
  • Inland waterways (including British Waterways
  • Land management (including commons and contaminated land) and soil
  • Rural affairs
  • Coastal erosion
  • Marine and Coastal Access Act implementation
  • Marine Management and Organisation
  • Coastal and wider access, countryside and rights of way
  • Marine Environment
  • Fisheries, including CFP (Common Fisheries Policy)
  • EU Fisheries Council
  • Departmental administration
  • Apprenticeships

Lord Henley

  • Environmental regulation
  • Air quality
  • Local environmental quality, including noise
  • Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
  • GMOs
  • Nanotechnology
  • Chemicals and pesticides (inc CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear)
  • Local and regional government
  • Localism and third sector
  • Climate change - adaptation
  • Climate change - Defra's interest in mitigation and overall carbon budgets lead
  • Sustainable consumption and production
  • Biofuels
  • Welfare of companion and wild animals
  • Dangerous dogs
  • Bee health
  • Plant health
  • Kew Gardens
  • Science, evidence and research
  • Waste and recycling
  • Global monitoring of environmental security (GMES)
  • All departmental business in the Lords
  • Deputising for the Secretary of State at EU Environment Council

Nutrition, Education, and Training

8. This list of DEFRA responsibilities conspicuously omits mention of Human Nutrition and Education and Training - which should extend and embrace people of a particularly "Green" persuasion; they have been entertained in consultations over recent years in which we have corresponded with several departments now distinguished as integral parts of DEFRA and concerned with subjects such as "organic" cultivations in a comprehensive farm-to-fork fashion, condition and investment of the soil and amenity and the rhizosphere and what may be generally regarded as care and conservation of the countryside (which includes "healthy" pastimes and leisure, as well as damage to land and crops and buildings and equipment owing to vandalism, on peripheries on built environments and depredations by hunts, shoots, and anglers, exacerbated by anti-GM protesters). If the politicians' pre-election tales of the woes owing to the recession and consequent stresses and civil strife arising out of measures of austerity prove to be true, in a population excited by hedonism, local governments will have to cope with urgencies similar like those connected in 1840s and 1850 with the Corn Laws; and bread and flour were not rationed in WW2 but in 1946 to 1948, after the war, and dominated as Marshall Aid was withdrawn and the Agriculture Acts determined a future of "featherbedded" agriculture with foreseeable struggles between Horn and Corn for which the proposed arrangements for food and "sustainability" seem grossly unfit for purpose.

9. We hope that we can persuade the canny citizen/customer/consumer/producer to heed the better of the FSA's initiatives, among which we could mention the Stores on Doors Scheme. Like us, manufacturers of all kinds need a resolution of the difficulties in reliable measurements and deductions: for instance, we need uptake of our suggestions to resolve nutrient compositions on the basis of dry components laid out on the kitchen table before all the changes of cooking and baking, evolution of CO2 and water (steam) and other changes (collectively described, loosely, Maillard reactions) that may produce compounds (such as acrylamide). Processing aids may not even be included among the ingredients and, anyway, are unlikely to remain without degradation in the high temperatures of the oven. The resulting loaf will be less than the sum of the parts laid out on the table and the nutrient values will have become at most not more than results of BATNEEC calculations (Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Costs), estimates of carbon (and possibly sulphur and phosphorus) footprinting and conservation of water supplies will be correspondingly questionable.

10. There are several examples now of unfinished business in the FSA that needs continuation and conclusion in DEFRA's new regime, although unfortunately we can see no enthusiasm or competence among the ministerial appointments already declared. Such overhauls include:

10.1. Reconsideration of definitions of products to be included in the fruit-and-veg scheme, which could be usefully extended to outputs of plants from "mariculture" (with dual usage as foods and biofeedstocks). Outputs and co- and by-products from all forms of "magriculture" should be tapped in controlled use of fermentations to produce fuels, food, feed and value-added pharmaceuticals (when restraints left from the BSE era can be lifted. Mycological science in the UK should be raised to levels matching standards at European centres such as those at Wageningen in the Netherlands. Such initiatives should accompany developments in tree crops, such as hazel nuts, which were used pre-WW2 to make desirable nut butters. We are trying to stimulate R and D in other traditional horticultural crops, such as cobnuts and hops, and the diversity offered by salad days, with an emphasis on fresh foods eaten, Green-style, with a minimum of processing and preservation.

10.2. Means of implementing authoritative persuasions to cut down on consumption of meat-and-dairy need the 3R's treatment, copying applications in related contexts by Refinement, Reduction and Replacement, with fiscal adjustments (subsidies, taxes and grants) to match. Replacements (e.g. of dairy-products with plant-based commodities) are readily measurable, but some forms of reduction would need technology, such as isotope analysis.

10.3. For the last decade we have been involved with "vitamin D" and the recurrence of rickets, a disease of nutritional disorders and links with agricultural and environmental matters and manifold musculoskeletal diseases; interest recently has implicated vitamin D in a variety of contexts, such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes, as well as risks of cancer, and fascinating observations have associated certain grasses as components of meadows and grazings with apparent plant-sources of vitamin D3 activity (in which magnesium, strontium, vitamin K, and pituitary releasing hormones may play further roles. We intend to review these matters and our efforts at enrolling scientific and medical allies beyond our means to join in this significant work, which requires improved methods, some still controversial, in screening, diet, supplementation, and the roles of the parathyroid hormone and calcitonin (from the thyroid gland) in various functions, including those associated with the various forms of "vitamin D2 and "calcium" metabolism. We shall post further news on these studies, in the hope of further scientific work, at assemblies and congregations celebrating harvest festivals and coincidentally the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle for Britain, which allowed the harvest of 1940 to be brought in unmolested and uncontaminated.

11. This leads on to contributions to diets with high contents of calcium and of other dairy products high in fat, cheese and salt, which have given the FSA much cause for thought and action. From the early 1970's we have been implicated with Finnish scientists (in the North Karelia project) tackling consequences in common foods, such as bread and associated topics (e.g. in the contents of spreads and the "yellow fats"). The food-industry and FSA are locked in a particular controversy over the salt content of cheeses, which is retained as a traditional means of preventing spoilage and wastage due to microbiological contamination, to which harm to the cardiovascular system and obesity may be added. Information on labels tell of manufacturers' efforts at lowering salt contents in breads and the R and D on replacements or reductions without undue loss of taste or resort to spices and dried fruits to stimulate a less harmful craving than the demand for salt, which had at one time a reputation - like bread itself - as an indicator of wealth and safety/security. This craving may wither as the generation who valued salty flavours for these reasons dies out, as long as the government can exert enough understanding from the food and drinks industry, and the recipes for home-based and craft bakery are declared as suitable for such purposes with appropriate labelling or information at points of sale.

 
 
 

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