Wednesday, June 25, 2008

British parents harassed in the name of junk science

Parents cleaning out their child's lunchbox at the end of the school day could be in for a nasty surprise — a scolding note from teacher alongside the half-eaten sandwiches and empty crisp packets. The School Food Trust wants teachers to send out warning letters to parents who fail to comply with school healthy-eating policies. And in advice that could be seen as patronising, the government-funded body suggests further that they send congratulatory letters to those who pack healthy lunches for their children.

Schools across the country were ordered to provide healthy lunches and remove vending machines filled with chocolate and fizzy drinks after a campaign led by the television chef Jamie Oliver exposed the poor standard of meals at many schools.

Most schools also ask parents not to give children crisps, biscuits or similar items for lunch, but the guidance from School Food Trust looks to harden the approach to unhealthy lunchboxes. In guidance sent as an example to head teachers and governors, the trust lists the foods pupils should not take to school: crisps, chocolate bars, chocolate-coated biscuits and sweets. “Cakes and biscuits are allowed but encourage your child to eat these only as part of a balanced meal,” it says. Nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit are welcome, as long as they have no added salt, sugar or fat. “Packed lunches should include at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables every day.”

Most parents are happy to comply with a healthy-eating policy, but could be irritated by the way the trust recommends it is assessed. “Parents and pupils who do not adhere to the packed lunch policy will receive a leaflet in the packed lunch informing them of the policy,” the trust says. “If a child regularly brings a packed lunch that does not conform to the policy, then the school will contact the parents to discuss this.”

A spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said: “It's no way to communicate with parents and doesn't put healthy food in a positive light. It may make parents feel underrated, dismissed and dictated to. “As a parent, I'll sometimes have a biscuit with a cup of tea - everything in moderation is what's needed for adults and children. It makes you wonder what the staffroom lunchboxes look like.”

Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, the online forum for mothers, said that advice on packed lunches was helpful for parents because it assisted them to say “no” to their children. But receiving a letter would “feel a bit like the lunchbox police”, she said. “Just occasionally there is really nothing in the cupboard because you haven't done the shopping in time, and you just bung in anything.” She said that the policy should, instead, be made clear at the beginning of each term.

Despite winning praise for making school meals healthier, the Government has been criticised for the way it runs them. The campaign group Food for Life Partnership warned Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, that the school meal service was “at risk of collapse”. In a letter it sent to the minister yesterday, it said: “The majority of school meal providers are now running at a deficit which they will not be able to sustain. “If urgent action is not taken, the Government risks losing this key opportunity to fight obesity and climate change by changing young people's eating habits. “Unless policymakers start viewing school meals as an education service, not a commercial one, they will end up serving no one.”

The Local Authority Caterers Association backed the partnership. Sandra Russell, chairwoman of the association, said: “School meal providers nationally are encountering financial challenges.”


IVF safe

Women who want to postpone motherhood to establish a career or find the right partner have been given new hope by research that shows the safety of an advanced egg-freezing technique. The most exhaustive study yet of children born after the freezing procedure found that they appeared to be as healthy as those conceived normally or by IVF, paving the way for its widespread use.

Specialists said that the research, into a method known as vitrification, promises to lift the main barrier to routine egg freezing. While dozens of British women have already done this to preserve their fertility, medical groups had advised against it outside clinical trials because of limited evidence of its safety. The study, led by Ri-Cheng Chian, of McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, assessed the outcomes of 200 children born from vitrified eggs. It found that the rate of birth defects was 2.5 per cent, which is comparable to natural pregnancies and IVF.

Dr Chian told The Times: "I have two daughters. If they wanted to preserve their fertility because they were 35 and not married, I would say, yes, they should use this technique. Even if they were 20 or 25 and wanted to use it for social reasons, I would recommend going ahead. We cannot yet say it is 100 per cent safe, but we are starting to amass good evidence that it is not risky so far as we can tell. "The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says egg freezing for social reasons should happen only in clinical trials, because there isn't enough information yet, but I think that is soon going to have to change."

Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, which offers egg freezing in Britain, said: "This is the sort of evidence we have all been seeking. I think in time it will come to be seen as positively perverse to refuse to allow women to have the chance to establish pregnancies with their own frozen eggs." She said that frozen eggs stored when women were in their twenties or thirties might eventually be shown to reduce the rate of birth abnormalities beyond that seen in the McGill study, which is published in the journal Reproductive Biomedicine Online. Such defects become more of a risk when older women conceive with their own fresh eggs.

Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said that the society did not have a firm policy on egg freezing for social reasons. "A single study isn't enough, but if more data like this emerges we would be more relaxed about it," he said.

While it has long been possible to freeze sperm and embryos for use in fertility treatment years later, it has taken much longer to achieve this routinely for eggs. The prospects of wider use have recently been enhanced by the development of vitrification, which involves flash-freezing eggs after special preparation. Up to 95 per cent of vitrified eggs survive the thawing process, compared with 50 to 60 per cent of those preserved by older slow-freezing techniques. Pregnancy rates for vitrification can be as good as for IVF with fresh eggs.

These advances may encourage more women to freeze eggs as a way of preserving their fertility, which starts to decline steeply when from the mid-thirties. Several British clinics offer women in their twenties and thirties the option of storing their eggs, and more than 100 have done so.


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