Nannyism doesn't work - yet in the FSA's 5-a-day campaign there's a blueprint that does, says Kevin Hawkins

It isn't often I find myself in agreement with Joanna Blythman on anything to do with food, but her trenchant criticism of the FSA in this column last week is timely and to the point.

Since its earliest days two quite separate and potentially conflicting strands of thinking have been evident in the agency's approach to improving the national diet. The sensible, pragmatic theme emerges in its advocacy of a balanced diet and five a day of fresh fruit and vegetables - persuading people to fine-tune their diet in a healthier direction by publicity and example, recognising that if they don't find it enjoyable they simply won't change.

Alongside this, however, we have the agency's war on salt and now on satfat, with its arbitrary reduction targets and "conform or else" threats to the industry. In other words, if you fatties won't mend your ways we'll damn well make you do it by removing your freedom to sin.

Leaving aside any philosophical objections to this evangelical nannyism, the reality is that it hasn't worked up to now and for very practical reasons it's rapidly running out of steam.

Retailers and manufacturers are signalling the limits of product reformulation and development. More reductions in the ingredients that make processed foods tasty and enjoyable will simply induce people to look elsewhere. Many are already doing that as they seek cheaper and more satisfying alternatives for economic reasons. The FSA, however, plods on regardless, with sugar c­onsumption its next target for ­punishment.

The same criticisms apply equally, as Blythman says, to the DoH's Healthier Food Mark campaign aimed at the catering sector. The restaurant business is having a hard time right now and, as more consumers switch to fast food outlets and takeaways, the middle-to- upper end of the market will really feel the squeeze. Applying reductionism to the eating-out sector cuts right across the main motivation for visiting these places. People typically go there for a treat, particularly when cash is scarce and eating at home is driven by value for money.

For this reason I don't see the Soil Association's alternative catching on either, except in the minority of restaurants who cater for those who share the association's values and can afford to eat there. In Bertie Ahern's memorable phrase, "I will not upset the apple tart."

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.