Supermarkets are being prosecuted for telling shoppers that fruit and vegetables are good for them.
Tesco is being taken to court for running a promotion in partnership with a leading charity encouraging people to eat healthily in a bid to prevent cancer. Asda faces a similar prosecution.
The bizarre red tape prosecutions are being brought by trading standards departments from two different local councils, which claim the stores have flouted laws governing labelling and health claims.
Tesco, in association with Cancer Research UK, printed labels on millions of pre-packed fruit and vegetables advising: "Eat at least 5 different portions of fruit and veg a day to help prevent cancer." Cancer prevention
Asda's prosecution surrounds marketing material stating: "Mangoes are a great source of vitamin C and beta-carotene, which are good for healthy eyes and skin. Their anti-oxidant properties help to fight cancer."
No one is disputing that these claims are true. However it appears that it is illegal to apply them to a particular product.
Trading standards officers claim the supermarkets are in breach of the 1939 Cancer Act, which was brought in to stop people selling quack cures, and the 1996 Food Labelling regulations.
Tesco, which is being prosecuted by Shropshire County Council, has been forced to water down the health message on its labels. However, the council will continue with the prosecution next month at West Mercia Magistrates Court.
The store's marketing director, TimMason, said: "It is crazy thatwe are being prosecuted for promoting a responsible health message."
Asda, which is being prosecuted by Swindon council, said: "We are disappointed that the local authority is continuing to pursue the matter, given that we have sought to follow one of the Government's policy objectives."
A spokesman for Swindon council said: "Our view is that there is a clear breach of both the Cancer Act and Food Labelling regulations. You cannot make health claims suggesting a product will prevent cancer."
The stores could be fined £1,000 for each breach of the Cancer Act and £5,000 for each offence under the Food Labelling regulations.
Cancer Research UK said it was "very disappointed" by the Tesco prosecution. And the British Retail Consortium has written to Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson pointing out the folly of the prosecutions.
The Government claimed in a 2000 NHS Plan that "increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is the second most effective strategy to reduce the risk of cancer".
This is the ultimate irony. Supermarkets have been in the past lambasted from certain quaters for not doing enough to push the healthy eating message. The UK government has published detailed research on both adults and children, as well as a survey, that show that considerably more effort must be made to achieve the government's dietary target of five portions of fruit an vegetables per day.
And we might ask: what are the stated reasons for the government's £10 million 5 A DAY programme?
Below is an extract from the Department of Health website:
“The Government recommends an intake of at least five portions of fruit or vegetables per person per day to help reduce the risk of some cancers, heart disease and many other chronic conditions.”
An extract from a brochure produced for the government's programme reads as follows:
“Eating more fruit and vegetables may help reduce the risk of the two main killer diseases in this country – heart disease and some cancers.”
But when a supermarket decides to support these assertions, it is said that they are in breach of the Cancer Act 1939 and the Food Labelling Regulations (1996).
ANH believes that the laws governing food and medicines are urgently in need of overhaul if we are to protect future generations from the range of key degenerative diseases that have become the predominant killer diseases over the last half century.