Monday, October 15, 2007

British government still blaming everyone but themselves

It's so easy for a Leftist government to kick business as the cause of childhood obesity instead of blaming real causes -- such as the great reduction in exercise that kids now get at school due to "safety" paranoia. And if you are using totally discredited science about the importance of a low fat diet, who cares? And the identification of trans fats in particular as a cause of obesity is bizarre. Some medical research suggests that very high consumption of them may have a weak link to heart disease but linking them to obesity seems to be a completely unfounded invention of the British government themselves. But Britain's government is Leftist and what Leftist needs evidence for any of their assertions?

The food industry faces a government inquiry into its role in Britain's surging obesity and heart disease rates with ministers considering a ban on trans fats as the first decisive step. Trans fats, which are entirely artificial, have been shown to raise the risk of heart disease and might also have important roles in obesity and diabetes.

The inquiry, ordered by Alan Johnson, the health secretary, follows a series of warnings from successive health ministers that the food industry needed to improve the healthiness of its products - most of which have been ignored. Johnson said: "We know we must act. We cannot afford not to act. For the first time we are clear about the magnitude of the problem: we are facing a potential crisis on the scale of climate change and it is in everybody's interest to turn things around."

The proposed ban on trans fats is being seen as a warning shot to the food industry as well as an important measure in its own right. Trans fats are used widely by the food industry because they are up to 85% cheaper than natural fats such as butter, lard and palm oil. But researchers have repeatedly warned that they act as long-term toxins and have no benefit for consumers.

A recent report from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which will carry out the new inquiry, said: "The trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits. They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some evidence suggests that the effects of these trans fats may be worse than saturated fats." However, even though such dangers have been known for nearly two decades, there is no obligation for food manufacturers to display the amount of trans fats on product labels. Johnson's decision to hold an inquiry follows cabinet discussions in which Gordon Brown made it clear that preventive healthcare was one of his top priorities. "There is high-level commitment across government," Johnson said. "We will provide the leadership, vision and sustained commitment required to help to start this cultural and societal shift."

His move follows surveys looking at the rising proportion of the population who are overweight. They show that the British tip the scales as Europe's fattest people, with 60% of adults and 30% of children overweight, defined as more than 25% of their body mass comprising fat tissue. Of these, 20% were obese, meaning their bodies were at least 30% fat. That proportion could reach 40% by 2025. Such changes could, ministers have been warned, threaten the viability of the National Health Service. It already spends between 10% and 20% of its hospital budget on obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

Johnson's decision could mark a sea change in the government's dealings with the food industry. Until now ministers had accepted manufacturers' claims that the best approach was to educate consumers about sensible eating and let them make their own choices. Johnson seems to be moving towards the views put forward by health campaigners who say the government must take more responsibility for the nation's deteriorating dietary health. They say few people have the time or ability to read complex food labels and design healthy diets and that many such labels are misleading.

Similar changes are already afoot in America where New York last year banned the use of trans fats in city restaurants and the government compelled manufacturers to list trans fat contents on food labels. The British inquiry will consider further action on food advertising. There is already a ban on advertising foods such as crisps and chocolate during children's television programmes. This could be extended to commercial breaks in adult programmes such as The X Factor and Big Brother, which attract many younger viewers.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents Britain's food manufacturers, accepted that Britons were eating too much saturated fat, but said the government should focus on people with the highest levels of fat intake rather than on regulating the industry. Johnson points out that the problem cannot be solved by government action alone. "There is no single solution for obesity," he said. "We will succeed only if the problem is recognised, owned and addressed at every level of society." His cabinet colleague Ed Balls, the schools secretary, will tomorrow announce measures to increase the amount of sport played by school pupils. Only 50% of schoolchildren do two hours or more of physical exercise or sport every week, well below targets set in 2004.


More on British food follies

Information overload? Forget about it. According to a newly published survey, we can barely satisfy our hunger for the stuff - when we're out shopping, anyway. And to meet this demand, the eggheads in retail engineering have come up with the latest must-have consumer accessory - the `intelligent' supermarket trolley. Now we can find out how our food got made, what's in it, where it came from, and what it will do to us. Since when did buying groceries get so complicated?

"Shopping Choices: Attraction or Distraction?", released this week by the retail technology group EDS and the food and grocery information group IGD (1), is a mixture of opinion poll and focus group evidence that suggests that we are so disconnected from the food we eat, so mistrustful of what goes into it, and so terrified of what it might do to us, that we need a slim volume of nutritional, environmental and ethical information before we'll drop an item into our baskets. Thankfully, according to the report, the two pieces of information people want to know above all are the price and the `best before' date - we haven't gone completely doolally just yet.

Providing lots of information is easy enough on something reasonably large, like a loaf of bread or a family-size pizza. But it's a complete pain when you've got to pack it on to a small packet. That's where the intelligent trolley comes in. With a built-in barcode scanner and a screen, the trolley can tell you anything you want to know about the product before you commit to it. From the point of view of retailers, it will also handily highlight any special offers and discounts available on the aforementioned product and, if you swipe your loyalty card before you use it, the trolley could no doubt feed back lots of juicy data on your preferences. The intelligent trolley not only soothes our food fears, it helps retailers flog stuff, too. Smiles all round, then.

There's a lot of information to pack in. For example, the `traffic light' labelling system used by British food manufacturers details total fat, saturated fat, sugars, salt and calories. For each measure, there's a colour: green is `go ahead', amber is `proceed with caution', and red is `run a mile'. Then you need to be told if the stuff inside the package will set off an allergy. Is it tolerant of your intolerances?

According to the survey, we want ethical information, too: fairtrade, organic, rainforest-conserving, dolphin-friendly. Should we stick the `food miles' on there somewhere? And if we stick all this information on the packaging, will there be. too much packaging, causing more problems for the environment? It's a minefield. It's a wonder that shoppers aren't paralysed by indecision before they get past the fruit and veg.

Now that politics has been left on the shelf, it's the nitty-gritty of our individual experience that seems to feed our imaginations. What we eat has become the bread-and-butter of our personal-is-political lives. This is pretty perverse. The developed world has long since solved the problem of providing enough food to eat, and yet the question of food seems to have become even more central to political life - undeservedly so.

Food can be fuel; food can be an excuse for conversation and bonhomie; if you are so inclined, food can be a vehicle to geek out in just the same manner as people obsess about Star Trek. Thanks to the wide availability of interesting and exotic ingredients (a product, for most of the UK, of the expansion of supermarkets), we can use food to get all creative, too.

Yet today we also treat food with the same level of mistrust as an unexploded hand grenade. All that information on the packet is just to reassure that the contents of our shopping trolley aren't, in fact, a ticking timebomb of ill-health or environmental destruction. Over the last few years, the risks associated with food have become as important in assessing what we eat as the joy we might have in eating it. But food isn't a toxin. Food is highly unlikely to make your children hyperactive; there's no ADD in additives. Food won't make you sick - despite the non-stop hysteria about obesity. Food won't cost the Earth or save the planet. Placing so much importance on what we eat can only destroy the simple pleasure we experience when satisfying our hunger while tantalising our tastebuds.

We should just chill out at the chilled cabinets, feel free at the freezers and proceed at peace to the processed produce. If you want to be a food slob, or a food snob, that's your choice - or at least, it should be. Let's tell the government, the health `experts' and the green campaigners where they can shove their organic, fairtrade, five-a-day ideas. If we allow our pleasure to be ruined by their obsessions, we'll definitely be off our trolleys.


British government doctor training policy diagnosed a failure

Changes to medical training introduced since 2002 have been rushed, poorly led and implemented and are unlikely even to produce very good doctors, according to a new report. Sir John Tooke, who chaired an independent inquiry set up by the Department of Health, said it had been a sorry episode from which nobody emerged with credit.

The new policy, called Modernising Medical Careers (MMC), was introduced without clear definition of what it was meant to achieve. Weak development, implementation and governance had made it worse. "Put simply, `good enough' is not good enough," Sir John writes. "Rather, in the interest of the health and wealth of the nation, we should aspire to excellence."

Problems with MMC first became apparent when the computer-based application system used for selecting doctors for higher training failed this year. The Medical Training Application Service (MTAS) had to be abandoned, and the furore about it drew attention to wider defects. The report by Sir John, who is Dean of the Peninsula College of Medicine, will make uncomfortable reading for the department, and for Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, who was the main driving force behind MMC.

Sir John refused to name those directly responsible for the debacle. "The medical profession itself was complicit in MMC, and it is hard to target any individual for responsibility," he said. The policy had failed in its key aim, which was to eliminate the "lost tribe" of senior house officers who did most of the work in NHS hospitals but were regularly denied opportunities to train to become consultants.

When MMC came in, such doctors found that they had to compete with the growing output from British medical schools and doctors from abroad allowed to work in Britain. Despite repeated warnings, the department at first ignored the problem, and its plan to introduce a policy whereby doctors' jobs only went to overseas candidates if there was not a suitable home applicant was stymied in the courts. This meant that 8,352 foreign doctors were free to apply for posts in 2007, along with 1,500 from the EU and 11,994 British citizens.

While acknowledging the "fantastic contribution" made to the NHS by foreign doctors, Sir John said it was not sensible to have a policy which allowed them to compete with doctors trained in Britain at a cost each of o200,000 to o250,000. The department moved to rectify the situation yesterday by announcing a consultation to look at proposals for managing overseas applicants in the future.

Sir John's report suggests that all those successful in getting a place in a medical school should be guaranteed a training place for the year after they graduate. At present, under MMC, this is not guaranteed - which means medical graduates cannot call themselves doctor, or even work as doctors.

He also suggests that the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board should be incorporated into the General Medical Council, which is already responsible for the undergraduate curriculum and for registering doctors. "The management of postgraduate training is currently hampered by unclear principles, a weak contractual base, a lack of cohesion, a fragmented structure and, in England, deficient relationships with academia and service," the report said.

Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, said that it laid bare "the shameful mismanagement by the Government of junior doctors' training. Hundreds of junior doctors still need action taken to ensure those who continue to meet the necessary standards will have the training [made] available to them." Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, said that the Government had learnt important lessons from MMC and would consider the report fully.


More BBC deception: "The creative director of the BBC is embroiled in a new crisis over alegations that he presented the film of an American director as his own work. Alan Yentob has been accused of presenting a film about a reclusive 1960s pop star as his own when the interview was in fact conducted by Stephen Kijak, a US film-maker. Viewers who have seen the film on Scott Walker, part of Yentob's Imagine series on BBC1, claim the programme was a "shameful deception" because it left the impression that Yentob had done the interview. The BBC insists Yentob - who has said there can be "artifice without deception" - has done nothing wrong and used standard industry practice by editing Kijak out of his own film. The controversy, however, raises new questions about widespread broadcasting techniques."

There is a big new lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly incorrect themes of race and IQ.

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