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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Taking the Pepsi challenge

I have blogged in the past on the strange fascination of some politicians with McDonalds, no doubt eased by the fast chain restaurant's continued sponsorship of inter-Parliamentary charity football matches and associated hospitality.

Now it seems that Pepsi has joined the fray with the news that former health secretary and arch-Blairite Alan Milburn has taken up a new job as an adviser to the American company to help it fight the backlash against unhealthy snacks and build a more acceptable image and product range.

PepsiCo's best-selling brands include Walkers Crisps, Pepsi, PJ Smoothies, Quaker and Tropicana juices. The company's many paid-advocates in the past have included Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Madonna. Heady stuff indeed for a man who left the government to spend more time with his family. The Guardian comments:

The decision to set up a UK advisory board is in recognition of the challenges facing companies which make a huge profit from "unhealthy" food, with the threat of a battery of new regulations and restrictions on the way they advertise and sell their products. It follows the precedent taken by its US parent company.

In the UK all manufacturers of food high in fat, salt and sugar are facing new restrictions on the television advertising of these products to children, along with the challenges of changes to nutritional labelling, higher nutritional standards in school meals and a ban on fizzy drinks sold in school vending machines.

Rising concerns about childhood obesity are also contributing to a trend for healthier eating, and government figures published last week showed the largest rise in expenditure on fruit and vege-tables per household in the past 20 years. In the UK, PepsiCo has already reduced the saturated fat content of Walkers Crisps by 70% and salt by 25%, but wants to make further progress in making its products healthier.

Obviously, there is a desire to change if only because failure to do so could lead to commercial problems. This is just as well as Mr. Milburn has had a record in the past of being particularly harsh with such companies:

It is a record that has involved strident attacks on the junk food industry, including a claim that the worst health problem facing the world is not the Aids epidemic but chronic illness caused by processed food such as crisps and fizzy drinks. Shortly after he resigned, he called on ministers to ban snack-food vending machines from schools.

We shall be monitoring closely the impact he is able to make in this new role.
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