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Scale of obesity epidemic means nutrition policy needs to revert to FSA, say UK campaigners

By Jane Byrne , 16-Mar-2012
Last updated on 28-Mar-2012 at 09:09 GMT

UK consumer advocates, demanding that responsibilities for nutrition and food labelling be given back to Food Standards Agency (FSA), say not enough is being done to tackle the obesity epidemic.

“One year into the Responsibility Deal and our worst fears have been confirmed - the UK government’s response to the scale of the obesity epidemic has been inadequate. There has been no progress on key issues with the three pledges announced under the deal reflecting work that had already been started by the FSA,” said Sue Davies, chief policy officer at Which?

She told FoodNavigator.com that as nutrition and food labelling are highly political, they should revert to the FSA - an agency, she added, that is at arms-length from government and uses an evidence-based approach to encourage industry to reformulate.

“We will be campaigning for this remit change in discussions with government over the coming weeks and months,” stressed Davies, who said that food companies were encouraged to sign up to the Responsibility Deal but added that there are no “in-built penalties” should they not.

The consumer group maintains that the FSA, before the October 2010 shift of its responsibilities for nutrition issues in England to the Department of Health (DOH), was achieving real results in salt and saturated fat reduction, as well as pushing the agenda for a front-of-pack traffic light labelling scheme.

Salt targets

Under the DOH, the Responsibility Deal became the main means of achieving change on these issues. Its pledge on salt reduction, said Davies, is based on the FSA 2012 salt targets. 

The consumer advocates said they recognize that a lot of companies have signed up to the DOH salt commitments, but exceptions remain including Lidl and Iceland among the retailers, and Findus, Princes and Birds Eye, among the manufacturers.

“We are now in 2012 but the Government has no plans to set further targets. It is essential that the approach based on gradual reductions continues. Some product categories will be more difficult (eg. bacon and cheese) but this should not prevent 2014 targets being set,” continued Davies.

Trans-fats

On the Responsibility Deal’s pledge to remove trans-fats from products, the consumer group said that a lot of action has been taken by the mainstream food industry to remove these but it argues that the government needs to ban such fats so that smaller brands, take-aways and other caterers remove them. 

Which? also reckons a new pledge on calorie reduction, which is being launched to coincide with the first anniversary of the Responsibility Deal, is too vague and leaves food companies flexibility over how they respond. 

“The Government has not made it clear what level of action is needed from different sectors. Success will depend on whether there is much action on the foods that are major sources of calories in the diet, such as soft drinks, confectionery and snack foods.”

Beyond TV advertising, there is a whole range of marketing techniques that are not being tackled, argues Davies. She highlights, in particular, the digital area including social networking sites as well as on-pack messages: "Why is there regular use of cartoon characters on the HFSS foods but never on the healthier options?,” asks the chief policy officer. 

Real progress made, claims industry

But Terry Jones, the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) communications director, told our sister site FoodManufacture.co.uk that significant progress has been made under the Deal.

“Despite the criticism from Which?, the responsibility deal’s voluntary approach has achieved, in just one year, some considerable progress,” he said.

“Over 70% of the retail market and 47% of the major high street and contract caterers have committed to further reductions in salt in over 80 categories of food. FDF members make up nearly 30% of signatories.”

Also, 90 firms have signed up to the pledge to remove artificial trans fats, a quarter of whom are FDF members, which in total represents 69% of the retail market, he added.

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