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Food Labelling and NHS Complaints System

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Winifred Robinson | 17:20 PM, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

traffic-lights.jpgWe often ask for emails when we're on air. This came for me today from Richard. 'You said you don't have time to read labels - if you don't have time to think about what you're eating you deserve to DIE'. Sadly it was only sent at 12.52 and handed to me when I'd come off air, or I'd have read it out.

Richard is - I'd guess - not a Buddhist but clearly someone who cares a lot about food labelling. He was referring to something I said in a question to Julian Hunt from the Food and Drink Federation.

I'd suggested no one has time to read detailed food labelling giving guideline daily amounts and that traffic lights on the front of packs, giving red, amber or green signals for fat, salt and sugar content were easier for consumers to understand. We were talking about it because the European Parliament was voting on which system should be adopted. It's been a long drawn out wrangle between the Food Standards Agency, the government department set up to protect public health in relation to food and a large section of the industry. The FSA favours traffic lights but many of the big supermarkets and the manufacturers don't. Might it be that some food producers think a red traffic light would put you off buying the stuff? 'Not a bit of it!' they've been chorusing on You and Yours as this dispute has rumbled on for years.

In our office when the subject comes up, the team seems pretty split between those of us - including me - who find this fascinating and like to discuss whether a red traffic light on the front might put us off slipping that jumbo pack of pork pies into the trolley and others - including the editor Andrew Smith - who slip into a deep coma of boredom each time labelling is mentioned.

The European Parliament vote will settle things eventually - food producers will have to comply with whatever system they decide in about three years time.

I also asked for emails today on the subject of the system for handling complaints in the NHS in England. This is another subject with a long history. In April 2004 the Healthcare Commission was set up and among its responsibilities took on the task of sorting out the more complex complaints from patients which could not be resolved at a local level. A huge back log quickly built up and officials from the Commission came on to You and Yours and accused local hospitals and trusts of forwarding complaints that they could easily have dealt with themselves. One example cited was a letter from someone angry that they have been given a penalty for failing to display a parking ticket when they'd had to rush a patient to hospital. A year ago, when the Healthcare Commission was abolished the job of dealing with complaints was passed back to the local level.

We asked whether this system is working any better for patients and heard from Vanessa Bourne head of research at the Patients' Association and Frances Blunden, a senior policy manager at the NHS Confederation. We also illustrated some of the problems with the case of is Wilf Gerrard from Wigan. His wife Marjorie died in October 2006 from peritonitis. Mr Gerrard had complained to his Primary Care Trust - Ashton, Leigh and Wigan - because he felt she's been given inadequate treatment. Four years on he felt his complaint had still not been answered. We read out on air some of your experiences - including one email from a mother who'd taken a child to hospital with glass in a foot. A doctor had ordered an X-ray but failed to find the glass. The mother had pulled it out later at home. When she'd telephoned the next day there was prompt action. The consultant sacked the doctor because this was the third such complaint.

In the days before email it could take a researcher days to find cases to illustrate items like this where a lot of personal suffering and distress lies at the heart of what can seem a dry discussion about systems in a huge organisation, the NHS. Now though you can send us your stories in seconds. I think all of our news programmes have benefitted hugely as a result. Other emails have given us cases we will investigate and follow up on later programmes.

Which brings me back to Richard and his email - people are much ruder in writing than they are in person in my experience and he'd included a phone number and so I called him up, as I often do when people email. 'Did he really think if I don't read the food labels I deserve to die?' Describing himself as a concerned vegetarian he said he was worried about all the processed food we eat and said that if we didn't eat so much of it, we wouldn't have to read so many labels.
He conceded that perhaps it might have been better to have written that rather than suggesting I deserve to die but we both agreed that wouldn't have caught my attention.
We had a good laugh about it. Like most Radio 4 listeners, in my experience, he was polite and well-informed with a real sense of owning the network. 'Sometimes,' he confided, 'I hear something and I have to rush upstairs to the computer'.

Which made me think, perhaps it isn't that email is ruder or more brutish. It just has a different grammar. Keep them coming. Thanks to the listener whose email comment was passed to me on Tuesday after I got the time check wrong. I apologised today and then did it again, straight afterwards. No one's bothered to email about that one yet. They must have given up.

Winifred Robinson presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks Winifred for taking the time to follow up as I often wonder if comments are just left to waft in the breeze. Glad your sense of humour let you see that you wouldn't have singled out Richard's message otherwise. It reminded me of the school kids who said "You're not one of those peole who read labels are you?" Gosh, read what you're actually putting into your own body! I read labels to ensure it's vegetarian or vegan or you can get a very nasty surprise. But why on earth bother with traffic lighting when everybody must know the good the bad and the ugly. So Mr Ferrero Rocher was worrying unnecessarily. Oh I know, it's so that when they go into hospital for treatment for obesity the trail of red light wrappers in their homes will ensure they have to pay for their treatment. NO...

  • Comment number 2.

    I am a member of a patients panel at my local hospital and have nothing but praise for the way complaints are handled by hospital staff. We can ask for regular reports and case summaries (with names withheld for privacy reasons.
    Not all NHS staff are bad at dealing with complaints. Most are extremely good.

  • Comment number 3.

    I don't think any of this food labelling will work with me. Whenever I see Lite or Skimmed, I choose the opposite.

    By taking out the seasoning, products are turned into cardboard. I would be more impressed if supermarkets marked their produce "seasoned" so that it was worth buying.

    My problem was that I had chemo a few years ago and my tastebuds are as bad as my dogs. One of them cannot resist an old paper tissue when it has been discarded on the street. To be fair, he does pick and choose and it might be he prefers the ones with lanolin.

  • Comment number 4.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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