Jamie Oliver has described the childhood obesity crisis as a catastrophe, and said it was time “every single minister” had a role in tackling the problem.
The celebrity chef, who has accused the Prime Minister of halting progress on the first Childhood Obesity Strategy, said it was time to “start looking at a multi-pronged environmental approach where every single minister in every single department has a part to play,” as he gave evidence alongside Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee.
He said: “I think to say it’s a catastrophe or an emergency is fair and true. I think if you speak to anyone in the NHS – doctors, paediatricians, dentists – this is a massive problem.
“If you spoke to Mark Carney at the Bank of England, is British kids and adults being unhealthy and less productive good for the economy or bad, it’s bad.”
Fearnley-Whittingstall told the committee: “How much is it down to individuals to change their diet? I don’t think human nature has changed in the last 30 years but the obesity rates in this country have trebled.
“Another thing that has undoubtedly changed is the food environment. We’ve seen an arms race between the big food brands competing with each other in a game they’re extremely good at, backed by a huge amount of money, and they’re racing for our appetites and we’re ultimately the losers.
“We have a big problem now, but I have seen that there are a lot of different levers to pull. I’m right with Jamie and we need to see all these levers being pulled.”
Asked about the recently introduced soft drinks levy, Oliver said it was a “fantastic policy” and suggested it could be extended to sugary milk drinks.
He said: “I definitely don’t think we should overuse taxing, but I think there is some logic to opening it out to milk products, which are jam-packed with additives and sugar and they’re currently outside of that taxing.”
Asked how he would respond to criticism of a “nanny state” approach to food, Oliver said: “I believe in the British people that when you give them good clear information they largely make brilliant choices. What happens is, we keep talking about the concept of choice when we largely haven’t got choice.
“So, if you go to a vending machine and there ain’t choice, you ain’t got a choice.
“If you go to a petrol station for your lunch for the third time that week and you ain’t got a choice, you ain’t got a choice. If you go to a supermarket in a poor area and everything that’s on bogof (buy one get one free) is unhealthy and bad for you and there’s no deals on the healthier things, you haven’t got a choice.
“Even 50/50 would be fair. So even if there was legislation that says for every deal you do on junk food, there’s one for fresh food, that would be fair. And we haven’t even got that clarity yet.”
He added: “Smoking took 40 years. We haven’t got 40 years to do this. We will not have an NHS in 40 years’ time if we don’t get a hand around an environmental strategy that attacks ill health and protects child health.”
Outside Parliament following the hearing, Oliver told the Press Association that Theresa May’s description of the UK’s plans to tackle childhood obesity as “ambitious” and “world-leading”, was “categorically incorrect”.
Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “It can’t possibly be true. We can’t have a world-beating child obesity strategy in the country that’s got the biggest problem with obesity in the whole of Europe heading that way very soon.”
Oliver cited the example of Amsterdam which he said had “a multi-faceted strategy” looking at junk food advertising and education around healthy eating, which allowed them to lower childhood obesity by 12% in three years.
Oliver had pushed for former prime minister David Cameron to introduce reforms to tackle childhood obesity but accused successor Mrs May of halting progress.
The Commons session comes ahead of the next chapter of the Government’s Childhood Obesity: A Plan For Action, which is expected this year.
Last week, the Prime Minister described the UK’s plans to tackle childhood obesity as “ambitious” and “world-leading”, but she added that further action has not been ruled out “if the right results aren’t seen”.
Oliver has long been a campaigner for healthy eating, particularly among children.
His fellow chef has a new BBC series out, Britain’s Fat Fight With Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, looking at why people are eating so much.