THE LONDON Sunday Times campaigned last year against the British equivalent of Wonder Bread. The British equivalent of FDA and USDA, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, described the campaign as a "big hoo ha," which may be interpreted roughly as much ado about nothing.
Assistant ministry secretary John Banford said the Sunday Times "has been 'exploiting' the difference between whole meal, wheat meal and white bread."
Whole meal bread is the equivalent of whole wheat bread in this country; wheat meal bread contains wheat germ and white bread is, well white bread.
A Sunday Times editior, who says British white bread tastes, "like bath sponges," considers his paper's campaign a success because the consumption of whole meal bread in England increased three percent.
The year-long campaign seems to be the most sustanined effort in recent times in Britain to do something about the country's "bad" eating habits. To get some perspective, consider the current nutrition activity in this country: publication and distribution of a government document recommending dietary guidelines (though it may soon disappear since the new administration doesn't think the government should be in the nutrition advice-giving business); campaigns to convince people about the hazards of caffeine, salt, sugar and fat.
The British appear to be more "laid back" than Americans about their food, its prices, its safety, its nutritional value and its taste.
"There is interest in nutrition in this country," said Bateman, "but not to the extent there is in America. The quality of the nutrition establishment is very low."
A London Times story last week said that Britons are changing their eating habits. They are eating more meat, dairy products, fish, fats (but the consumption of butter, twice as much as margarine in 1974, is now just about even with it), fruit, yogurt and drinking more alcoholic beverages and coffee than ever before. They are eating less sugar, fewer vegetables and eggs.
The Times described the findings as a ". . . peculiar combination of good and bad habits."
But Americans still eat more meat, dairy products, fats and oils than the British, which may enforce the validity of the British writer's observation: "In America it seems there are more grossly obese people than there are here."
"Don't write that we are way behind you," said medical writer Oliver Gillie of the Sunday Times, "because in a lot of things we are ahead. The immense interest in taking bran started here."
On the other hand, the British appear to have gotten a late start on the need of decreasing fat consumption in the diet. They consider it a matter of controversy.
The hazards of salt? "It's a pretty new idea here," Gillie said. "I think it ought to be labled." It's not such a new idea in the United States, but it isn't yet labled here either, though FDA is considering such a regulation after considerable prodding from one consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and several thousand health professionals.
The British don't worry as much as Americans do about food safety, either.
For one thing, Britian's consumer movement was never as active as the American movement once was, nor even as it is today. "Our consumer lobbies don't work quite the way yours do," said Gillie. "Our consumer groups take a more reasonable view than yours." As a result, there is less information available, and regulations are less stringent.
In addition, "we don't have the 'benefit' of the famous Delaney amendment," Banfield said with more than a trace of sarcasm. He was referring to the amendment to the food laws in the country which requires the banning of any ingested substances that causes cancer in man or animal. "In the States you carry regulatory approach to a fare-thee-well. oAmerican law tends to be much more specific; ours leaves a fair degree of room for common sense of manufacturers and enforcement." Then Banfield said something few civil servants would say in this country because it is untrue: "You can can cause cancer with almost anything."
On the other hand, according to Banfield, the British record on some toxic substances is better than ours. "We banned DES diethylstilbestrol, a growth hormone used in cattle which causes a rare form of vaginal cancer in the offsprings of women who took it during pregnancy in the belief that it prevented morning sickness long before you did. We don't in the main use antibiotics in feed to prevent disease, but we have started monitoring to see if traces are getting into meat."
The level of aflatoxin -- a potent carcinogen which occurs naturally in moldy peanuts and grains -- permitted in food, is 5 parts per billion. In this country the permissible level is 20 ppb.
Levels of lead permitted in canned foods are 1 part per million with only .02 ppm allowed in baby food. There are no miminum levels for lead in packaged food in this country with the exception of evaporated milk, which can contain no more than .3 ppm.
"One thing we are backward on," Gillie said, "is labeling." Until 1983 the presence of water in food doesn't have to be listed on food labels, and there is no requirement that confectionary or bread products list their contents. Labeling becomes mandatory in 1983 only because Britain has joined the European Economic Community and is subject to its laws. In this country everything but alcoholic beverages has an ingredient statement, and of course some things carry nutrition labeling.
Whether the British use more food additives than we do is unclear, but they use far more than many European countries. "In Europe food is natural, but we only grow 50 percent of our food," Banfield said as a way of explaining the necessity for food additives. Without them, he said, "You lose flow qualities, appearance, ability to preserve," sounding more like an industry food technologist than a civil servant.
So where does Britain come out compared to America in its concern for nutrition and the safety of foods? Perhaps marching several steps behind us in most matters, but ahead in a few. The difference is in the depth and breadth of our concern. We have been at it longer.
In both countries the concerns appear to be centered at the middle and upper socio-economic levels. The unanswered question is whether or not the only people who care about such matters are those who don't have serious worries about where their next meal is coming from.