Public health charity Action on Sugar wrote to major food and soft drink manufacturers and retailers last month, asking for their perspective on the fairest approach to reformulation.
This was in response to the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) call for a mandatory reformulation system to create a level playing field for all companies.
“The letter merely sought information," it said.
But the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) saw things differently. Tim Rycroft, FDF corporate affairs director, told Action on Sugar: “We believe it is for government to collect information and host discussions with a range of stakeholders on what is the most appropriate way for it to set its public health policy, and not for others, NGOs or industry to dictate.”
FDF then recommended its members to continue engaging closely and constructively with government agencies on the issue of reformulation, but that it did not see “additional value” in providing the information to Action on Sugar and its sister organisation Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH).
In a statement made to press, Action on Sugar’s chairman and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, Graham MacGregor, said this was "typical of the mentality of the FDF".
“FDF [is] trying to dictate to us and to the industry what we can and can’t do in trying to tackle Britain’s escalating obesity crisis and [this] is a clear attempt at preventing NGOs and the food industry to communicate and express their views openly. The FDF is clearly trying to do everything in its power to stop a coherent plan for sugar and fat reduction, just as they previously rigorously opposed any attempt of salt reduction.
"Despite this, the branded food industry did reduce the amount of salt added to their food. It was only then that the FDF congratulated itself for all of the good work they had done to encourage salt reduction.”
But Rycroft denied the letter was a warning to members and said they were free to make their own decisions about which stakeholders to talk to.
“Members being bombarded with time consuming requests for information asked us if they had to respond to CASH. As the [guidance letter] makes clear we did not ‘warn’ members not to communicate as is claimed.
"We advised that their tight resources would be best spent engaging with Government on technical discussions around product change. It would be a big burden on companies for them to discuss their plans with all of their stakeholders.”
Last month Tim Rycroft participated in FoodNavigator's online roundtable discussion on how best to tackle the obesity crisis, with the take-home message from all participants being that a cross-stakeholder approach and collaboration was needed.
“We as adults have accountability for what we eat,” said Rycroft during the webinar. “But there’s also responsibility for organisations, governments, parents, local authorities, farmers, food and drink manufacturers and retailers.”
Could Action on Sugar’s letter be seen as part of this joint responsibility, seeking to bring together manufacturers, retailers and organisations - and if so, did FDF's response undermine this?
Dr Carrie Ruxton, nutritionist at Nutrition Communications and fellow participant of the roundtable discussion, said: "I can see why the FDF was trying to champion a coordinated approach as it delivers a level playing field for food businesses and gives the consumer greater confidence in reformulation efforts.
“However, campaigning groups do have a useful role to play in pushing for change where otherwise there could be apathy from non-engaged food businesses or governments which see diet and nutrition as a low priority.
"For that reason, it is wise not to attempt to silence them nor thwart legitimate campaigning activities.”
Ruxton said she believed it should be up to individual food businesses how they respond to campaigning groups.