The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has sent an open letter to NHS CEO Simon Steven expressing “some concerns” about his comments, which were made on UK national television.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Stevens said obesity was the most crucial public health problem facing the nation today and had become “the new smoking”.
“One in three of our teenagers are drinking high-energy, sugary drinks. I do think we’re going to need reformulation to take sugar out of foods, in the same way that successfully that’s happened with salt,” he
“If that doesn’t happen then, in effect, what we’re doing is a slow-burner food poisoning through all of this sugar that goes on to cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease.”
He appealed to “responsible retailers, food producers [that] can smell the coffee here”.
In his open letter to Stevens, Ian Wright, the new director general of UK trade group FDF, said he agreed that all parties, including the food industry, should be encouraged to play an active role in tackling obesity. Yet he urged caution on the tone of this dialogue.
“[W]e believe obesity is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the demonisation of one ingredient, nor can it be right that an everyday ingredient such as sugar is characterised as a poison.”
He pointed to action taken on salt and calorie reduction through voluntary government scheme the Responsibility Deal and invited Stevens to meet with him to discuss ways the industry could contribute to public health.
Footing the bill
In a recent NHS blog post, it was calculated that binge drinking cost the NHS at least £5bn (€6.8bn) a year, while junk food, sugary fizzy drinks and couch potato lifestyles were “normalising obesity”.
“So we need wide ranging action – as families, as the health service, as government, as industry, using the full range of tools at our disposal,” it wrote in the release.
In his letter, Wright said the UK food and drink industry employed around 400,000 people and contributed £22bn (€29.9bn) to the country’s economy. He said taxes paid by employees and companies played a major part in the funding of the NHS.
Wright said working in partnership was the quickest and most effective way forward, a philosophy echoed by the Conservative government’s voluntary Responsibility Deal but criticised by lobby groups like Action on Sugar. The scheme's own chair also said voluntary measures could only go so far.
The Responsibility Deal included pledges on things like fat, calories and portion sizes.
Wright said a previous salt reduction programme acknowledged by Stevens helped reduce population sodium intakes by 15%.
In addition to his comments on industry reformulation, Stevens said parents and schools had a significant role to play in changing consumption habits.
Science-led policy needed
Wright said the FDF supported evidence and science-based solutions to the obesity challenge. Such evidence played a role in steering both government and industry.
“This is why it is so important to us that the science is used accurately, and not casually overstated. That will only confuse the consumer. It is clear that excessive consumption of sugar can lead to overconsumption of calories and to weight gain,” he wrote.