I would be curious to know if there are any foods out there that don’t come with some scare-story or health warning attached to them. These days you can’t open the pages of the Daily Mail without being told something or other gives you cancer, diabetes, dementia, or just a double chin. You will by now have seen this week’s entry into the litany of nonsense peddled by health lobbyists: the suggestion, based on a study on mice, that roast potatoes and burnt toast can give you cancer.

This is one story even the health fascists can’t quite agree on. Cancer Research UK and the American Cancer Society have both questioned the legitimacy of the suggestion, but the wheels are already in motion, and the reason for this particular scare story is already in the open; further regulation of private businesses serving food. And to think, some might have believed they actually had the public’s best interests at heart!

Alice Thomson makes the point in The Times that ‘nearly 90 per cent of the population say that they would like to make dietary changes … but that there are too many contradictory messages so few bother bother’. Yet people are not stupid; they know that to ‘be healthy’ they need to ‘eat less, exercise more’. It is what people do with this information, of their own volition, that matters, not directives from on high about the relative dangers of… well, everything.

Thomson paints a brutal picture of the Food Standards Agency (FSA): armed with a budget of £85 million, its advice goes unheeded, its crime unit has never successfully closed an investigation, and its hygiene rating are ignored by authorities and restaurants.

Thomson, however, waxes lyrical about Public Health England (PHE), a far larger body with a far bigger budget, praising the manner in which, through legislation and health campaigns, they actively seek to insert themselves into the way food is sold to the public. But is this not fundamentally illiberal in the underhand ways it seeks to ‘name and shame’ companies, or, as Thomson phrases it ‘nudging, not nagging’?

Certainly, she is right that – because it is a less obviously irritating approach – it is likely to have a more positive outcome as far as PHE are concerned, but that is not to say that it is desirable. At its core, it betrays a similarly overzealous attitude towards public health as the FSA’s; conducted at the behest of vested interests and agendas, rather than the public.

If the public never sees the nudge coming, nor know who it’s come from, do they ever really have a choice in the decisions that PHE’s actions lead to?

by Edward Baer