Tipping the balance for fresh produce

National newspapers were quick to hit out at "wasteful" government spending on health messages earlier this month when a European study highlighted a further drop in consumption of vegetables across the UK in 2008.

What the report authors didn't point out - and would have learned had they been at this week's excellent and well-timed STC/HDC conference on this very subject (full reports next week) - is that for every £1 spent by the World Health Organisation and national governments on promoting healthy foods, the food industry spends £500 on its products.

With the dice loaded that heavily, it is little wonder that increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables is proving a tough nut to crack. But crack it the nation must. We are facing an obesity epidemic, said speaker Professor Stephen Atkin, head of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Hull York Medical School, that could bankrupt the NHS thanks to the increased incidence of associated chronic disease. Meanwhile, nutritional epidemiology professor Janet Cade noted that on current trends, nearly a quarter of children in the UK could be obese by 2050.

It was clear from the conference that scientists are still some way from being able to say with certainty what it is about fruit and vegetables that is so good for us - we just know, from the overwhelming data showing an association between better health and consumption of more fresh produce, that it is.

But we are getting better at programmes that work with children as the outcomes claimed by the award-winning Food Dudes scheme discussed at the conference showed. The programme, which gets children into the long-term habit of eating vegetables and fruit through rewards, has been rolled out to all primary schools in Ireland. Why not across the UK too?

For industry, a plea from the Fresh Produce Consortium's Nigel Jenny for crop sectors to work more closely on the generic promotion of fruit and vegetables, to ensure that fresh produce gains a bigger portion of the food market share, looks the best way forward considering the vast marketing budgets horticultural producers are up against. It's a numbers game, and we're outnumbered.

- Kate Lowe, editor. Email: kate.lowe@haymarket.com

www.HorticultureWeek.co.uk/leader for recent leaders

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