Once upon a time, you kicked us Brits out when we tried to tell you how to run your affairs. It’s time to do the same with Jamie Oliver.
For many years now, our two countries have been in a ‘special relationship’. Well, we Brits like to think of it as special, but we always seem to be at the end of the phone waiting for you to call. You’ve been playing the field a lot more in recent years, apparently because we’ve lost our mojo, but you have your needs and we wouldn’t want to stand in the way.
However, sometimes you fall head over heels for someone who is just bad news. And as a friend, we need to tell you when you’ve made a mistake. Especially when we’re kind of responsible for that mistake.
Now is such a time. Because you are getting way too gooey over one of our exports, Jamie Oliver. Last week in Long Beach, California, ‘St Jamie’, as he is sometimes called, gave a prize acceptance-speech at one of your TED talks. It was only 18 minutes long, and while it might have seemed tasty at the time, it was full of junk and you’ll suffer for it in the long run.
‘We, the adults of the last four generations, have blessed our children with the destiny of a shorter lifespan than their own parents. Your child will live a life 10 years younger than you because of the landscape of food that we’ve built around them’, said Jamie. But life expectancies have been increasing each decade thanks to much lower infant mortality rates and better medical treatment in later life. When a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 claimed that the long-term rise in life expectancy would soon come to an end, the journal published an editorial taking a broader view and concluding that such an idea was ‘overly gloomy’. Actually, this is still better than the statement Jamie produced in his British TV series Jamie’s School Dinners, when he suggested that children would die before their parents, a phenomenon only seen in living memory in AIDS-devastated areas of Africa.
‘Diet-related disease is the biggest killer in the United States, right now, here today. This is a global problem. It’s a catastrophe. It’s sweeping the world’, St Jamie also declared. Actually, people most commonly die from two broad categories of disease: cardiovascular diseases, like heart attacks and strokes; and the various different types of cancer. In both cases, far and away the biggest risk factor is age. The best way to avoid dying of cardiovascular disease or cancer is to die of something else sooner. Obesity ceases to be a significant risk factor in deaths after the age of 50.
Morbidly obese people do seem to die younger than those who are of ‘ideal’ weight or are a little overweight (according to official standards, at least). But whether they die earlier because of obesity, or whether the things causing them to die also make them fat - or a mixture of the two - isn’t so easy to figure out. Such subtleties are lost on Jamie because we’re all part of this alleged obesity epidemic that is ‘sweeping the world’.
article continues after advertisement
‘Think about smoking. It costs way less than obesity now. Obesity costs you Americans 10 per cent of your health care bills - $150billion a year.’ Hang on a minute. A moment earlier, Jamie was telling us that obesity shortens our lives dramatically. But the real expense in healthcare is in looking after old people. If obesity really is the killer that Jamie says it is, then carrying an extra hundred pounds of weight should avoid a lot of those costs - and all those social care and pension costs, too. In that scenario, the obese are doing the rest of us a favour. In fact, the obesity panic runs side-by-side with the pensions panic. One says we’re going to die young because of our unhealthy lifestyles; the other says we’ll all have long but miserable old ages in penury. Which is it?
Having cooked up some unappetising statistics, Jamie then performed another trick of British obesity-porn TV: make the parents cry. During his talk, he showed some video of Stacy, a very overweight mother from Huntington, West Virginia. Having piled food on to her kitchen table to bring home how much junk her family eats, Jamie has a creepy chat with her:
Jamie Oliver: Let’s have a talk. This stuff goes through you and your family’s body every week. And I need you to know that this is going to kill your children early. How are you feeling?
Stacy [in tears]: Just feeling really sad and depressed right now. But, you know, I want my kids to succeed in life and this isn’t going to get them there. But I’m killing them.
Jamie’s solution to this so-called epidemic is to improve school meals and get people cooking at home again. ‘Obviously in schools we owe it to them to make sure those 180 days of the year, from that little precious age of four, til 18, 20, 24, whatever, they need to be cooked proper fresh food from local growers on site. OK? There needs to be a new standard of fresh proper food for your children. Yeah?’ (Sorry, America, he really talks like that.) That’s right, a country with over 300million people is now going to start giving kids ‘local’ food. The idea that an obesity timebomb can be defused by home cooking seems less ‘local’ and more ‘far-fetched’. This is the prejudice of a well-to-do chef, not a serious contribution to public health.
So, having watched Jamie feed you some fattened statistics about obesity that have been shown to be wildly inaccurate, seen him declare falsely that your kids are going to die far younger than they should, and watched him make a decent, upstanding, loving mother cry on TV, what did you do, America? You gave him a prize. What were you thinking?
Okay, it is partly our fault. When he tried this stuff over here, our prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, was so desperate to fawn over anybody who was having any influence on the public that he met him and announced new government policies in response to his TV series. The result? Fewer kids eat school meals than before he started while school meals staff have to work harder.
You’ve exported many dodgy things to us over the years, America. We should really treat Jamie as payback for Paris Hilton. But this is way more serious. Take our advice: it’s not too late to cancel his visa.
Correction: In his talk, Oliver claimed that ‘Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat’. In the original version of this article, that was claimed to be an annual total of 300,000 people. However, the correct annual total based on Oliver’s statement is 120,000.
Time for a serious debate about the welfare state
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.