Health minister Anna Soubry has put the food and drink industry on notice that the government would be prepared to regulate on food’s salt, fat and sugar content if further progress is not made to stem the growing obesity epidemic afflicting the UK, which is estimated to cost the National Health Service £5bn a year.
Soubry told delegates at a meeting organised yesterday (January 22) in London by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) that political and public pressure might force the government’s hand if voluntary approaches to improving the nation’s health under its Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) were not seen to be working.
Soubry congratulated manufacturers on the great strides they had made to reformulate products and make them healthier. She emphasised that she was not in favour of regulation, believing individuals and parents had the primary responsibility for the diets and lifestyles of themselves and their children. However, she also noted that the industry – and government – also had responsibilities.
‘I’m not a food fascist’
“I’m the sort of politician who is not a food fascist … I’m never going to say to anybody: ‘You should not eat this.’ … my message is: ‘All good food in sensible moderation’,” said Soubry. “We need to make people understand what they are choosing to buy.”
She strongly believed that voluntary measures, such as the PHRD, were likely to achieve far more than regulation. However, she also acknowledged that shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s recent calls for legal limits on fat, sugar and salt content, had changed the political landscape and could not be ignored. Soubry said it was therefore imperative that more companies – including more small and medium-sized companies and foodservice outlets – signed up to the PHRD if regulation was to be avoided.
Soubry noted that the government would soon be reviewing what health improvements had been achieved as a result of the PHRD. “I want to be able to tell my prime minister this industry is very important to our nation’s economy; it is delivering; it is taking responsibility and here is the tangible evidence of how the Responsibility Deal is working.
“I don’t want to be in a position of having to go to the secretary of state or the PM and for them to say to me: ‘Anna, the Responsibility Deal is not delivering in the way that it must for the sake of our nation, so we are now going to have to look at legislation.’”
‘That has to change’
Soubry added: “I’m extremely aware of the fact that some companies have totally signed up for everything [in the PHRD]; some are not very good … but some are not doing anything at all,” she remarked. “That has to change. I do not want to regulate … but people expect certain standards in food and the content of food … you [manufacturers] have a moral responsibility because you are incredibly powerful.”
The meeting saw the launch of the FDF’s new report: ‘Delivering healthy growth’ , which showcased what FDF members – mainly larger branded manufacturers – had done to help consumers make healthier food and drink choices and improve their health.
Launching the report, Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo UK & Ireland and FDF health and wellbeing chairman, said: “UK food and drink manufacturers are acutely aware of their responsibilities – to their customers and employees, and to the environment around them. The FDF’s new report demonstrates manufacturers’ on-going commitment to working both independently and in partnership with other stakeholders towards improved public health. We are seeing real, measurable results, such as a 10% reduction in the salt levels of products made by FDF’s members when compared with 2008.”
Eight more companies sign PHRD
At the event it was announced that a further eight companies had signed up to the PHRD’s calorie reduction pledge to help consumers reduce their calorie intake. They join the existing 23 signatories, with manufacturers accounting for the largest group of industry participants. Under the PHRD, 31 FDF member companies have made pledges around the non-use of artificial trans-fats, salt reduction and calories, in addition to those to encourage greater physical activity and health at work.
FDF director general Melanie Leech said: “Today’s announcement of a further wave of calorie reduction pledge signatories demonstrates the on-going voluntary commitment by the industry to improve public health. Our members were in the vanguard of calorie reduction signatories last year and I am delighted to see manufacturers again at the heart of today’s announcement.”