Regulate food and give consumers choice

It is as well that new Labour has had two terms in power, and looks set for a third: some of its projects move at a snail's pace. Almost as soon as it came to power, Labour issued a green paper on public health. It has taken seven years for it to be translated into the white paper that was published on Tuesday. It will take another two years at least to discover if the food and drink industry has taken "voluntary action" to reduce levels of sugar and fat in processed foods and give consumers more information about what they are actually eating. The industry also has two years to agree "controls" on advertising junk food to children. More green papers, more consultations, more political and media hot air about "the nanny state" will surely follow. Labour will most likely need a fourth term if it is to get anywhere near a transformation in British eating habits. Meantime, thousands more will develop obesity, risking diabetes and heart disease.

Though crises in the NHS grab the headlines and get MPs' juices running, the crisis in public health is greater and more important. The Victorians' achievement was to banish diseases such as cholera by providing clean water and sanitation. Sewers, built at public expense, saved more lives than doctors and hospitals ever did. Now the food and drink industry, abetted by the supermarkets, poses the threat to health. If the industry can be controlled, the reduced demands on the NHS would be such that it need never face another crisis.

The claim that people should be "free to choose" unhealthy food if they like it is preposterous. Human beings are not born with a craving for a Big Mac, a bag of chips and a Coca-Cola. On the contrary, as Colin Tudge explains on page 30, traditional diets across the world, based on locally grown produce, were both tastier and healthier, and were enjoyed from infancy in the days before excess sugar and fat blunted taste buds, and before knowledge of how to cook became virtually extinct. Children have no choice before they become, in effect, addicted to bad food. Their parents have no freedom to buy, say, the many delicious varieties of English apples whose growers have been driven to the wall.

Nobody, in any case, is suggesting that oven-ready meals, baked beans and frozen chips should be banned. The proposal, first, is that fresh food should be more widely available and, second, that the public should have the information to help them make choices. If a chicken has been injected with steroids, if a pack of ham is 70 per cent water, if a bag of watercress has been washed in chlorine, if a box of cereals is full of salt and sugar, consumers should be told - in plain language and large type - just as they are told that tobacco contains substances that can kill. As any good Tory economist knows, perfect markets require perfect information. Real choice in the food and drink market will be available only when people have full details of what is offered. It is industry, not the government, that tries to "regulate" the market, by cutting producers' margins, importing out-of-season food, driving small shops to bankruptcy and spending £740m a year on advertising branded products.

Ministers should push further and faster in loosening the corporate grip on our food, and remember that it is industry, not Whitehall, that has meddled with our diets. But they should also remember that the biggest cause of ill-health is poverty and inequality, and that even if all classes eat healthily, stop smoking and cut down on alcohol, the poor will still suffer more chronic illness and die younger than the rich. Greater equality would do more for the nation's health than any amount of food labelling, and the war on poverty remains the most important war of all.

A casualty in the war on terror

To most Britons, nothing in the whole of the Iraq war will have seemed more senseless and vicious than the murder of Margaret Hassan. Here was a woman who had given much of her life to helping the Iraqi people, who had strongly opposed the US and British invasion and who berated westerners for regarding brown-skinned people as some kind of inferior species. Why would a rebel movement kill a possible sympathiser and alienate many Iraqis as well as Americans and Europeans? The answer is that war allows no such discrimination between victims. No doubt many US bombs were dropped on sworn enemies of Saddam Hussein and on supporters of the invasion. American marines did not inquire at each house in Fallujah as to the charitable activities and political sympathies of the inhabitants before reducing it to rubble (see Lindsey Hilsum's report, page 23). Mrs Hassan, being married to a local man, reasonably regarded herself as an Iraqi. Since several thousand Iraqis have been kidnapped over the past year or so (some for ransom), it is doubtful that even she thought that would give her much protection.

The best that can be said for the invasion is that its anarchic aftermath has sucked into Iraq every psychopath, religious maniac and political fanatic in the region. If you have a taste for fighting the infidel, or just a taste for blood, Iraq is the place to be, with more immediate thrills than are offered by the detailed, clandestine planning required to mount a significant attack in Europe or America. The country has thus become a sort of sink council estate of the Middle East, where the unfortunate residents have their lives made a misery (and sometimes brought to a terrible end) by the "problem people" that nobody else wants. Meanwhile, the rest of us live in relative peace, largely free from terrorist attack. George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would call this taking the fight to the enemy. Whoever killed her and for whatever reason, Mrs Hassan was in that sense a casualty in the war on terror.