All posts by Kate Cooper

Margaret Chan: Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol

Margaret Chan is hitting the headlines today because of the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.

It’s worth remembering, however, her hard-hitting opening address to the 8th Global Conference on Public Health in Helsinki in June 2013.

chan_official_portraitShe didn’t mince her words, laying it down the line for the major food industry players. Prevention, she said, must be the cornerstone of the global response to these costly, deadly and demanding diseases [chronic noncommunicable diseases, the obesity epidemic]. Their root cause reside in non-health sectors. (my italics)

It’s worth reading all of her address, the latter half in particular:

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators. In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion.

As the new publication makes clear, it is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.

Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.

Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public. They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.

This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power. Few governments prioritize health over big business. As we learned from experience with the tobacco industry, a powerful corporation can sell the public just about anything.

Let me remind you. Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups. This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business.

I am deeply concerned by two recent trends.

The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous.

The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.

In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.

What are we doing to our environment?

An article by George Monbiot, Another Silent Spring in the Guardian on 16th July drew my attention to a recent paper in the prestigious journal Nature showing a strong correlation between neonicotinoid concentrations and the decline of insectivorous bird populations. The researchers conclude:

Our results suggest that the impact of neonicotinoids on the natural environment is even more substantial than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of persistent insecticides in the past. Future legislation should take into account the potential cascading effects of neonicotinoids on ecosystems.

Apis_mellifera_flyingNeonicotinoids are a class of powerful neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. In response to growing concerns about their impact on honey bees in particular, the EU asked the European Food Safety Authority EFSA) in January 2013. In response, the EU recommended their restriction across the EU. In April, 15 of the 27 EU member states voted to restrict their use for two years from 1st December 2014 — the UK voted against. Monbiot’s argument is that we have to act quickly to ban this pesticide as it has such devastating impact.

note: The image at the top of the page was taken by Tim Parkinson.

‘Food deserts’ in Birmingham

Professor Jim Parle is a practising GP and Professor or Primary Care at the Birmingham Medical School. He is also one of the Food Council directors.

In this video interview, part of the Birmingham 2050 Scenarios Project on possible food futures for the city, he is talking about food deserts.

Continue reading

What it takes to feed Birmingham


The human mind has problems with big numbers and vast geographies. Yet a glimmer of understanding of both is necessary to begin to appreciate what it takes to feed a city, even a relatively small one such as Birmingham.

The trick is to start with something familiar. Continue reading

The health and social benefits or urban food growing

In The value of urban agriculturepublished last year, there’s a list of projects for Birmingham researchers to get their teeth into. Here are three potential topics, among many: Continue reading

School food standards

Earlier this month, a new set of school food standards was published. They’re worth reading, not least because they’re mandatory.


Jamie_Oliver_cookingJamie Oliver said this about it:

“Anything which makes it easier for school cooks to get tastier, nutritious food on the plate at school lunch time has to be welcomed and the new School Food Standards guide does that. There’s also built-in flexibility which is massively important. School cooks are on the frontline in the fight against diet-related disease in my view so it’s vital that they get support. For me, these mandatory minimum standards are so important if we’re going to truly protect the next generation.”

When the Elliott Review came to Birmingham

Yesterday the Elliott Review came to Birmingham. Led by Professor Chris Elliott, Director of the Institute for Global Food Safety, this Review was set up by HM Government in response to the horsemeat scandal. He uncovered widespread food crime in the UK.

How can a major UK city tackle food crime?

To answer that question, the Prof and his Review team met over 50 people from across the food supply networks in the city — including procurement manager Sinead Edom in the video here from the Handmade Burger Co.

Towards the end of this highly productive day, the Prof told Nick Booth of Podnosh that of more than 200 meetings he’d had so far (the penultimate day of his consultation process) this was the most interesting. Here’s more:


Elliott Review Birmingham workshop on 2nd April – follow #BrumElliott







On Wednesday 2nd April, The New Optimists are bringing an impressive group of people at their Elliott Review Birmingham workshop next Wednesday.

Food manufacturers and retailers, plus environmental health and trading standards people and others involved in food regs along with those responsible for providing meals on a tight budget (e.g. for school children or hospital patients) and some regional scientists and social scientists will be exploring how the city can tackle food crime.

Professor Chris Elliott, who leads the team set up by HM Government to review the assurance and integrity of the food supply network after the horse-meat scandal, will be there with his colleagues.

HM Government published the Prof’s interim report just before Christmas. He asked me (with my New Optimists hat on) to set up this workshop so that he and his team, along with us can test his draft recommendations, and generate a case study of how a major UK city (that’s us!) can tackle food crime.

He wants to include this case study in his final Report which is due out in early summer.

You can read more about the Elliott Review Birmingham here.

It’s a great opportunity for the city to be seen as core to intelligence gathering on food safety in the UK — something the Birmingham Food Council sees as very important.


Nutrition and public health

Food poverty, food insecurity

Food safety and integrity

Urban food growing

Food and the city economy

Global food security

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