Groups rally to defend UK dietary guide after attacks by 'interested industry'

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

The open letter has been penned in support of the UK's Eatwell guide which was attacked by industry lobbies and maverick commentators, said Mwatsama. © iStock
The open letter has been penned in support of the UK's Eatwell guide which was attacked by industry lobbies and maverick commentators, said Mwatsama. © iStock

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Over twenty health, consumer and professional organisations have joined together in support of the UK’s Eatwell guide following attacks by “maverick commentators and interested industry with an axe to grind”.

The guide, which was adopted in March this year, revised the UK’s national dietary guidelines​ and promoted certain food choices for sustainable reasons for the first time, giving prominence to plant-based proteins and slashing recommended daily portions of meat and dairy.

Upon publication, the Meat Advisory Panel said its recommendation to cut consumption of red meat was “puzzling​” while dairy lobby Dairy UK called the reduction in recommended dairy consumption from 15% to 8% “baffling and disappointing”.

Signatories of the joint statement​ - 22 in total - include health organisations such the British Heart Foundation, Royal Society for Public Health and the World Cancer Research Fund as well as the Food Foundation and Food Ethics Council.

Environmental NGOs Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have also given the guide their backing.

Mavericks, axes and misleading information

Dr Modi Mwatsama, director of policy and global health and registered nutritionist at the UK Health Forum told FoodNavigator the letter was written for two main reasons.

© Public Health England

The first is to reassure people that they can rely on the messages within the Eatwell guide because these are based on comprehensive reviews of the evidence as a whole.  The second reason is to counteract a variety of misleading comments and attacks to the messages in the Eatwell guide from different actors who have axes to grind in relation to their own interests.

“Some maverick commentators have attacked the guide because it does not agree with the misleading information they promote – such as eating fat will make you slim.

“Others have accused the guide of benefiting industry more than public health because industry experts were involved in the update.  A further group of critics includes the meat and dairy industries who are concerned about the recommendations to lower consumption of their products.”

Such mavericks commentators include the Public Health Collaboration, said Mwatsama, whose recent report​ ​said that government advice for people to switch to low-fat and low-sugar processed foods has had disastrous consequences for public health. 

Dr Emma Derbyshire from the Meat Advisory Panel said: It is disappointing to see that the updated UK Eatwell guide has used a 'one size fits all' approach when it comes to red meat guidance.  The new guide provides an infographic with a blanket message that the UK public should 'eat less red and processed meat'."

Derbyshire said the guide provided no justification for this advice, and that it grouped sausages in the same processed meat category as bacon and cured meats. "This is factually incorrect as British sausages are not processed as they are made using fresh meat and are not preserved in the same way products such as salami are preserved."

Help people to eat healthily

The supporting organisations have called on the government to roll out a comprehensive healthy and sustainable diet strategy to help the public meet the Eatwell recommendations.

This means making processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar less accessible, affordable and less heavily marketed while increasing the accessibility, affordability and marketing of healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables and plant-based proteins such as pulses.

Measures could include sugar taxes, marketing restrictions on junk food and resurrecting campaigns to promote eating five piece of fruit or vegetables a day.

But how likely is all this in a post-Brexit climate dominated by economic uncertainty and fears of rising food prices?

Already the UK’s industry lobby the Food and Drink Federation called for the sugar tax to be put on hold​ ​given Britain's economic fragility.

Mwatsama slammed FDF's move as “opportunistic​”, saying it was an example of how sections of the food industry puts its own short-term profits above the longer-term health of people and the economy.

Instead,  the referendum should be seen as a positive chance for healthy change.

“The referendum presents an opportunity for the government to take control of food, farming and fisheries for public good. Eighty-five organisations, including the UK Health Forum, have just written to David Davies and Theresa May to ensure health and sustainability are central to the government’s future food and farming policy. 

“Better food and farming policies can help to cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming and food industries by 80% by 2050, and promote healthier diets to combat diet-related disease and save taxpayers billions of pounds.”

Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil and most recently China have also integrated sustainability into their national dietary guidelines.

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