On Sunday morning, I read the following sentence: "The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald's and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg's, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease".
Slightly bleary eyed from the night before and distracted by my daughter throwing "little trees" of broccoli on the floor, I read it again to make sure I hadn't stumbled across a script from The Thick of It or some other political satire. But no, there it was in black and white, apparently true.
In an overhaul of the government's approach to public health, the health secretary Andrew Lansley has set up five "responsibility deal" networks tasked with coming up with ideas to tackle public health crises. Some of what they suggest is expected to be used in the public health white paper due to be published in the next few weeks.
Although the groups are chaired by ministers, they are dominated by food and alcohol industry members and supermarkets.
The food network, which will look at diet and health problems, includes representatives from the fast food and processed food firms already mentioned, as well as Pizza Hut, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Compass, the catering company that produces the turkey twizzler school menus famously criticised by Jamie Oliver.
The alcohol group is chaired by the head of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which lobbies for the alcohol industry. The physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.
Health and consumer groups such as Which?, Cancer Research UK and the Faculty of Public Health as well as medical specialists will work alongside them.
Much as it pains me, I have been trying to understand the thinking behind this seemingly extraordinary move.
Perhaps Lansley is right that engaging with industry is the most productive way of achieving improvements in what they produce and therefore bringing down the estimated £6bn annual cost to the NHS of diet-related disease and £2.7bn cost of alcohol-related disease.
Maybe having a nice sit down around a table as part of a group with the word "responsibility" in the title will persuade them that reducing salt, banning dangerous trans-fats and raising the price of alcohol is the right thing to do, and to hell with the share prices.
...Or maybe not. The fact that Lansley has already binned the "traffic light" warning system for food (approved by nutritionists but vehemently opposed by Tesco, Kellogg's, Unilever and Kraft) and ruled out both regulation and price rises in favour of voluntary approaches to changing consumer behaviour does not bode well.
Engaging with industry need not mean handing over health policy to companies whose sole purpose is to maximise profits regardless of the impact of their products on the nation's health. I think the head of the food campaign group Sustain nailed it when she said: "This is the equivalent of putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free space."
Laura Smith is a freelance journalist, writer and editor who has written for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Marie Claire and the Evening Standard. www.laurasmith.org
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