UK hint at 'challenging' junk food policy puts industry on the defensive

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Chicken or egg? FDF director Ian Wright says that food manufacturers are following consumer demand for unhealthy food rather than leading it. "“We have no interest in unhealthy customers," he said.
Chicken or egg? FDF director Ian Wright says that food manufacturers are following consumer demand for unhealthy food rather than leading it. "“We have no interest in unhealthy customers," he said.

Related tags: Childhood obesity strategy, Nutrition

The UK government appears ready to ditch an industry-led, voluntary approach to tackling obesity for something “more challenging,” the Deputy chief medical officer hinted last week.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Gina Radford told an audience at Food Matters Live that the Public Health Responsibility Deal has achieved a “huge amount”​  yet hasn’t prompted the industry-wide action required to tackle obesity.

“One of the difficulties [with the Responsibility Deal] is that it is voluntary and some [companies] have not been coming up to the mark as well as others,”​ she said.  

Dr Radford gave little away in terms of the new childhood obesity strategy, expected in January, but her comments clearly caught industry leaders on the panel by surprise. Ian Wright, director-general at the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) was in defensive mode.

“It would have been nice if the NHS and public health authorities had been doing more about [the issue of obesity] over the last 15 years,”​ he said.

Highlighting the “major costs​” involved in reformulation, he explained how innovation took time and money, but consumers had to be persuaded of any interventions too.

“You have to [make these changes] slowly. Massive change produces outrage,”​ he said, in reference to the Twitter storm this summer​ when Tesco banned lunchbox size portions of the added-sugar versions of Ribena and Capri Sun.

‘Unhealthy consumers are not of interest to us’

During a heated debate, Wright argued that manufacturers are simply going along with consumer demand rather than leading it. “We have no interest in unhealthy customers – unhealthy customers are economically less active and therefore not of interest to us.”

Wright also argued that ditching the current approach and bringing in a new one could see millions of pounds wasted. The concept of a sugar tax is also fanciful, he claimed, given that it would be “almost impossible”​ to implement. “Wielding a stick​” would not change people’s behaviour, he added.

The UK government committed to a tax lock in its manifesto, making a sugar tax unlikely, but Dr Radford’s comments hinted that new regulation in other areas is definitely on the table.

She said the government is unlikely to rip everything up and start over when it comes to its new childhood obesity strategy. “It’s about doing the things that we do know work. We’ve got to do it faster. We are considering a wide range of measures and [the new strategy] will be challenging.”

The government is clearly feeling the pressure to control junk food advertising, especially to kids. Dr Radford noted how the odds of eating healthily are “stacked against​” children.

A study published earlier this month​ showed that nearly three quarters of the food and drink marketing seen by children is for junk foods and sugary drinks. Promotions were a particular problem, the authors noted. The head of the Responsibility Deal’s food network, Dr Susan Jebb, has previously admitted that collective action from industry on promotions has proved to be just about impossible”.

Keen to head off any regulatory measures, FDF said it would support a ban on the advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods to the under-16s, starting from the New Year. This could well happen anyway when the Committee on Advertising Practice aligns the rules​ governing broadcast and non-broadcast advertising.

Launched in 2012, the Responsibility Deal includes a series of commitments designed to help the public consume less calories. Reformulation, the promotion of fruit and veg and more widespread calorie-labelling are among the pledges. The scheme avoids what campaigners claim to be the most effective interventions to improve diet – food pricing strategies, restrictions on marketing and the reduction of sugar intake.

Those involved in designing the Deal say they have been left in the dark regarding its future. The website now clearly states that the content was “published under the 2010 to 2015 coalition government”.

Some industry leaders also complained that access to the Department of Health had been severely restricted – perhaps another hint that the government is planning hard-line measures. The new obesity strategy is expected in the New Year. 

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