Jamie has the wrong recipe

By Justin King, the chief executive of J Sainsbury plc (THE GUARDIAN, 12/09/06):

Last week Jamie Oliver, who fronts Sainsbury’s advertising and has done so much to highlight the importance of healthy eating, used colourful language to criticise parents who allow children to eat junk food and become obese. He has a point. By 2010 one million British children are destined to be obese. A generation of overweight and unfit children are the overweight and unfit adults of the future. This will put substantial pressure on public services, notably the NHS.

But while I agree with Jamie’s drive to get children eating healthily, his attack is neither correct nor the best way to achieve change. I ate crisps when I was young and drank fizzy drinks. My children do the same, and they should be allowed to enjoy them. There is no such thing as bad food – just bad diets. Moderation and variety are the key. Dictating to people – or unleashing an expletive-filled tirade – is not the way to get engagement. We need to make it easier for people to understand the true content of foods and let them make informed decisions.

Some critics view supermarkets as part of the problem – pushing junk food, high in fat and salt, into consumers’ mouths. But we have a unique role to play. We have contact with shoppers every week and understand how they behave, what turns them off and on. As a result we can help inform our customers about the food they buy.

Clear, simple labelling has to be the most powerful tool to get the nation eating healthily. I fail to see why some manufacturers and retailers refuse to adopt the Food Standards Agency recommendation of a multiple traffic light (MTL) labelling system. Independent research shows that customers find it the easiest to understand. Most look at information for just a few seconds, so labelling must provide information at a glance.

The MTL system works – 80% of our customers say it influences what they buy, and our sales figures show they are opting for green and amber products ahead of those marked with red. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that companies shunning the system are reluctant to put a red label on products.

We have been using red, amber and green for nearly two years, and there is nothing to fear in helping customers understand a product’s true nutritional content. When we realise a product that we are developing will be labelled red, we automatically ask how it can be made healthier.

Learning to appreciate good food and eating healthily is best started at an early age. Cooking should be on the curriculum in primary and secondary schools. It’s good to see that from September 2008 cookery will be back on the school timetable, but it must be taken seriously, with proper funding.

A healthy lifestyle is not just about calories in. It is also about calories out – exercise. Activity levels, especially among children, have fallen dramatically in recent years; a national reluctance to get off the sofa is a major factor in obesity. Our Active Kids programme is designed to get more children exercising. It is not just about supporting traditional sports. Our research shows that children striving to get into a school team are generally fit and healthy – it is those not in the team that should be the main concern, because they often stop exercising completely. By Christmas the scheme will have delivered about £34m of equipment – an average of over £1,000 for every school in the country.

Tomorrow we are taking another step – a meeting of parents, experts and government figures to help tackle the problems parents face in providing a healthy lifestyle. But it would be foolish to think enough is being done. Jamie Oliver will no doubt continue to remind us of the issue, but it needs more effort by us all.