Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Compulsory cookery: another half-baked idea

Teaching children how to cook should be about taste and pleasure - but the UK government is only interested in obesity, salt intake and telling us how to live

From September 2008, secondary schools with cooking facilities will have to teach practical cookery to every 11- to 14-year-old. The remaining 15 per cent of schools without such facilities will be expected to teach the compulsory classes by 2011. Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, explained the rationale for compulsory cookery lessons: `Teaching kids to cook healthy meals is an important way schools can help produce healthy adults.' (1) Pupils will learn to cook a variety of dishes, including a `top eight' of healthy recipes, officials said. Cookery is undoubtedly a worthwhile activity that should be passed down to the next generation, so why do Balls' proposals sound more like a cause for indigestion than celebration?

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was right when he complained that, `just six months ago, ministers promised heads greater flexibility in the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds. Now they have fallen at the first fence, creating another entitlement and more compulsion for this age group.' (1) Indeed, when it comes to education, no other government has so over-egged their interference in the teaching profession, or turned up the heat so high on what schools should force-feed their pupils. So alongside `citizenship' classes, compulsory key skills, environmental `awareness' initiatives and proposals for `money management skills', educationalists now have to add salad making skills to their `must do' timetable. At this rate, will there be any academic nutrition left on the menu?

As it happens, cookery lessons can be an enriching feature of the school timetable. Where once, as a part of a gendered curriculum, `home economics' might have prepared girls for their domestic role, contemporary cookery lessons serve up rather more universal fare. Aside from the enjoyment of creating dishes from basic ingredients, school students learn, for instance, how to co-operate with others. And through food preparation they learn that life is about giving rather than childishly taking. Cookery lessons also provide a little space where secondary school students can develop social skills. It was always rather apt that in the teen-angst film Gregory's Girl, the romantic plotting and scheming took place in cookery lessons or during lab experiments. When it comes to serving up subtle lessons in independence and social maturity, cookery lessons can play host to all sorts of simmering relationships.

The same, however, cannot be said of Balls' soggy proposals. Only this government could take something so effortlessly enjoyable and beneficial to school students as cooking and bludgeon it to death with a rolling pin. There isn't an ounce of genuine enthusiasm, or even a gram of understanding, for the humanistic qualities involved in cookery. Instead the classes in coercive cookery are another sideshow from the irrational `war on obesity' and the banal sermons on health and healthy eating. No doubt Balls' ideal recipes will be a fixed menu of five fruit and veg a day, small portions and nothing resembling taste and enjoyment. Goodbye toad-in-the-hole and chocolate sponges, and anything that dares to contain salt or fat. Was cookery meant to be as appealing as guzzling cod liver oil?

Indeed, it is striking that the government is so obsessed with food yet shows no real appreciation for it. For Balls and Brown, food is only valued for its nutritional content rather than the sensual pleasure it gives us. Food should be judged on taste, not `health'. Officials' philistine attitude towards food reduces humans to little more than animals, biological entities in need of the right `fuel'.

However, there is more to Balls' coercive cookery lessons than a misguided reading of vegetarian recipes. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick recently observed (see Healthy in mind, body.what about spirit?), healthy eating is now `the highest form of ethical virtue recognised in contemporary society'. In this sense, forcing school pupils to take lessons in healthy eating can be seen as part of an attempt to inculcate the new moral and behavioural codes yet further. Tackling the level of obesity amongst the young may be given as the ostensible justification but the policy impulse here is moral. The measures aim to socialise children into accepting that sanctions could arise against them if they don't follow the government's lifestyle diktat.

By making healthy cookery classes compulsory, the government is explicitly stating that for future generations, when it comes to deciding what to eat, personal choice will be a thing of the past. Already Ken Livingstone has suggested that mothers feeding their children burgers and chips through school railings should be arrested by the police. How long before food inspectors in supermarkets make sure we're following the right `healthy eating' plans?

In the past, subjects and aspects of schooling were made compulsory on the grounds that they allowed the next generation to make a worthwhile contribution to public life. Transforming a subject more associated with the home than the world of work or intellectual development into a compulsory subject simply institutionalises the colonisation of our private sphere by the government and state authorities. Far from cookery lessons enriching young people's experience of the education system, it's yet another recipe for social control and moral conformity. Surely it's time to put a lid on lifestyle diktat?


Vaccine for C.diff?

A vaccine to help stamp out the deadly C diff superbug has been developed by British scientists and could be available within three years. The jab would save thousands of lives a year in the UK alone. It could be used both to treat severely-ill patients and mass-vaccinate pensioners, who are most at risk of the killer bacterium. Tests on more than 200 patients suggest that the jab is safe, causing few side-effects other than the occasional red arm or headache.

In one US trial, a course of injections rapidly cleared up infections which had lingered for up to two years. Larger-scale trials on hundreds of patients in British hospitals are being planned in conjunction with the Department of Health.

Scientists are warning that a new strain of Clostridium difficile has emerged which is resistant to antibiotics developed to treat it. But the vaccine, from the Cambridge biotech firm Acambis, could tackle all forms of the bug because it works in a different way. Like the tetanus jab, the vaccine centres around not the bug itself, but the poisons it produces. C diff creates toxins which irritate the lining of the bowel, causing diarrhoea and, in the worst cases, a potentially fatal infection of the abdomen. Treating the poisons with formaldehyde ensures they no longer harm the body. However, they are still recognised by the immune system, priming it to produce antibodies capable of attacking and destroying the bug.

Dr Michael Watson, of Acambis, said: "The toxins work together to blow up cells. "If you imagine them as a dangerous criminal, the formaldehyde essentially handcuffs it. "It still looks like a dangerous criminal but it can no longer use the knife or shoot the gun." C diff, which thrives in filthy conditions, infects more than 1,000 pensioners a week and contributes to almost 4,000 deaths a year. Although antibiotic treatment does have some success, many patients relapse, with successive bouts of diarrhoea making them weaker and weaker.

It is hoped that like the tetanus vaccine, a course of three or so injections will provide long-lasting protection which can be topped up every ten years or so with a booster shot. One of the trials showed the jab could be used to treat and clear up recurrent diarrhoea. The most severely ill of the patients studied, a 71-year-old woman, had been taking antibiotics almost continuously for nearly two years to try to combat more than ten bouts of diarrhoea. The other two patients - a man and a woman - had been battling the bug for up to nine months. Four shots of the vaccine over two months prevented the diarrhoea returning in all three cases.

In a strategy similar to flu vaccination, everyone over the age of 65 or so could be offered the chance to have the jab. Dr Watson said: "Clostridium difficile costs Europe o1billion a year in healthcare costs. You could view that as saved money or saved beds." Dr Marina Morgan, a consultant medical microbiologist at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, said: "There is a desperate need for something to tackle this problem. It is a nightmare. "Norovirus (the winter vomiting bug) is dreadful but it is shortlived and people get better on their own. "C diff kills people and the more we have to fight C diff the better. This sounds amazing."

Professor Mark Enright, of Imperial College London, said the jab seemed promising, despite the small number of patients studied so far. "I don't really see a downside to it. Vaccination is much better than treatment - it is better not to get something than get it and try to kill it off later."

Clostridium difficile exists naturally in the stomach of many healthy adults, where it is kept under control by 'friendly' bacteria. The problems start if the balance of bacteria is disturbed, perhaps as a result of taking antibiotics for another infection. Once the "friendly" bacteria are killed off, the C diff can multiply and produce the harmful toxins. Spread, via hardy spores, is swift. But simple soap and water can keep hands from transmitting the bug while powerful disinfectants can be used to clean floors.

While it is unclear why pensioners are most a risk, they tend to be in hospital more often and for longer than younger people. In addition, immunity tends to decline with age. In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, C diff was blamed for 2,247 deaths and implicated in another 1,560.

The large-scale testing needed to ensure the jab is both safe and effective means it is three to five years away from the market. Professor Mark Wilcox, a C diff expert from Leeds University, cautioned that the weakening of the immune system with age might mean that the vaccine works less well in the elderly. He added: "This will be an expensive vaccine to develop. "Having said that, the cost of C diff is considerable, so even if it does turn out to be a rather expensive vaccine, if it is efficacious it could be money well spent."

The latest mutation of C diff has been found to be resistant to the drug metronidazole. It means that only one medicine, vancomycin, is now left to treat the bug. Health experts have warned hospital bosses and staff to be extra vigilant for signs of the new strain and report any patients not responding to treatment.


Bill would make it illegal to feed the obese

Three legislators want to make it illegal for restaurants to serve obese customers in Mississippi. House Bill No. 282, which was introduced this month, says:
Any food establishment to which this section applies shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity Prevention and Management established under Section 41-101-1 or its successor. The State Department of Health shall prepare written materials that describe and explain the criteria for determining whether a person is obese, and shall provide those materials to all food establishments to which this section applies. A food establishment shall be entitled to rely on the criteria for obesity in those written materials when determining whether or not it is allowed to serve food to any person.

The proposal would allow health inspectors to yank the permit from any restaurant that "repeatedly" feeds extremely overweight customers. The bill, written by GOP Rep. W. T. Mayhall Jr., was referred to the Judiciary and Public Health committees, but The Jackson Free Press doesn't expect it to garner much support in the statehouse. About two-third of Mississippians are considered overweight or obese, according to a recent analysis of federal health data.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). And how odd it is that we never hear of the huge American study which showed that women who eat lots of veggies have an INCREASED risk of stomach cancer? So the official recommendation to eat five lots of veggies every day might just be creating lots of cancer for the future! It's as plausible (i.e. not very) as all the other dietary "wisdom" we read about fat etc.

10). And will "this generation of Western children be the first in history to lead shorter lives than their parents did"? This is another anti-fat scare that emanates from a much-cited editorial in a prominent medical journal that said so. Yet this editorial offered no statistical basis for its opinion -- an opinion that flies directly in the face of the available evidence.

Even statistical correlations far stronger than anything found in medical research may disappear if more data is used. A remarkable example from Sociology:
"The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre's yield of cotton. He calculated the correlation coefficient between the two series at -0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower.... In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic conditions and lynchings in Raper's data. Raper had the misfortune of stopping his analysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic conditions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added."
So we must be sure to base our conclusions on ALL the data. But in medical research, data selectivity and the "overlooking" of discordant research findings is epidemic.

"What we should be doing is monitoring children from birth so we can detect any deviations from the norm at an early stage and action can be taken". Who said that? Joe Stalin? Adolf Hitler? Orwell's "Big Brother"? The Spanish Inquisition? Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde? None of those. It was Dr Colin Waine, chairman of Britain's National Obesity Forum. What a fine fellow!


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