A leaked letter from the Office of Fair Trading to the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) expressed concern that the FDF's new seven-point manifesto, including goals to reduce portion sizes and cut excess salt and sugar in foods, may be illegal if the consequence is reduced consumer choice or artificially higher prices.
The OFT warning comes at a time when the food industry is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to making consumers' diets healthier. Major companies such as Kellogg, Nestlé, Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Coca-Cola have signed up to the FDF's manifesto, which also includes adding more nutritional information on product labels and promoting healthier eating through advertising.
As a result, the OFT's caution is likely to increase the frustration of such food companies who, in trying to achieve a more responsible image by reacting to government concerns and working to make products healthier, may now be susceptible to accusations that they are reducing consumer choice.
But OFT spokesperson, Roger Hislop, said that the competition watchdog had merely voiced general concerns to the FDF, as well as the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health, that there would be greater potential for illegal acts such as price fixing if companies clubbed together.
"There's nothing to stop any individual supplier from changing its goods and there would not be much danger in a government-led campaign to tackle obesity, but if companies got together and also decided to increase prices or reduce choice to customers then that may constitute a breach of competition law," said Hislop.
FDF spokeswoman Christine Fisk said that the warning would not change the manifesto but would merely impact on the implementation of the initiatives by individual companies.
"We are working in a very competitive market. But we are also working closely with government on this and will aim to ensure that there is no infringement of competition," said Fisk.
UK baker RHM will be another company watching the developments closely after also signing up to the FDF's manifesto. The company says it has reduced the salt content of its breads by 10 per cent and has also launched a new loaf, Hovis Best of Health, that contains 25 per cent less salt than standard loaves.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the FDF, said recently that he thought"the whole food industry has already made great strides in reducing the amount of salt in a wide range of processed foods."
OFT spokesperson Hislop said that the regulator was working with the industry and the government to help monitor the situation and that any problems would be dealt with on a case by case basis.