U.K. Government's Healthy-Eating Campaign Backfires

Opposition MP Calls Change4Life an Ad for Big Business; Supermarket Pulls Out

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The British government's attempts to get people to eat more healthfully in 2012 are already backfiring, with a top supermarket chain pulling out of a partnership with the Department of Health and an opposition Member of Parliament calling the Change4Life campaign as a "glorified advertisement for big business."

Ainsley Harriott
Ainsley Harriott

A government press release claimed that three of Britain's biggest supermarket chains -- Walmart Stores-owned Asda, Aldi and Co-operative Food -- had joined the Change4Life healthy-eating campaign by offering special discounts on items such as fruits, vegetables and low-fat yogurts.

But German-owned Aldi issued a statement saying that it is "one of the few supermarkets to offer consistently low prices and great value; therefore, no exclusive offers have been created for this partnership. Aldi works hard to offer everyday low prices that shoppers can trust. We maintain exceptional supplier relations, and we are committed to sourcing products locally where possible."

Aldi's statement was released through the office of Diane Abbott, a Member of Parliament and spokeswoman on public health for the Labour Party. Separately, Ms. Abbott said, "At a time when British families are hard pressed, I think people will be upset to have been misled like this. [Secretary of State for Health] Andrew Lansley has become a walking sandwich-board man for his friends in big business."

Since coming to power in May 2010, the Conservative Party-led coalition U.K. government has cut back spending on public health initiatives by at least 50%. In a controversial move, it announced that it would ask marketers to help plug the gap.

The Change4Life campaign launched Supermeals this week with the help of TV chef Ainsley Harriott, who has assembled a book of supposedly healthier versions of the nation's favorite dishes. It is designed to help families make the most of the Supermeals deals available at local stores and promises that each recipe can feed a family of four for £5 ($7.80). In addition, 4 million recipe packs will be given away to Change4Life supporters.

A government press release said, "Shockingly, research has found that the second-most-popular evening meal is a sandwich as opposed to a balanced meal. ... If we plan our meals and shopping, we can save money and make healthier choices at mealtimes."

The Supermeals drive, which is supported by a national print campaign by M&C Saatchi, has also caused controversy because many of the items use ingredients like processed cheese sauce, which has a high salt and fat content.

Asda defends its involvement in the campaign. According to a statement from the Walmart -owned company: "Healthy eating and planning meals on a budget are really important to our customers and their children all year. That's why it's important for us to be involved in the Supermeals campaign, roll back the prices of hundreds of healthier products, including fresh fruit and vegetables, help promote quick and easy recipe ideas, and try and remove some of the barriers people face in choosing healthy options for their family."

The Co-operative Food chain is also standing by its participation. "We have supported the Change4Life campaign from the outset and were keen to get behind Supermeals to make it easier for shoppers to create healthy, balanced meals on a budget," a spokesperson said. "The campaign is being promoted across all our 2,800 food stores" via in-store screens and radio.

In the summer of 2010, the coalition government halved its marketing budget, including spending on the $120 million Change4Life campaign. It hoped that marketers would fill the gap and help promote healthful living in return for a relaxed policy toward food marketing.

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